Critical Theory and Constructivism

Critical Theory and Constructivism: Theory and Methods for the Teens and the New Media @ Home Project

by Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D.


It is our belief that there is no single methodology that is superior to any other methodology in every case; different research questions lend themselves to different methodologies. We do believe, however, that methodology and theoretical/philosophical foundations are inevitably related in any research endeavor. In this document, we place in dialogue two perspectives sometimes assumed to be at odds with one another: Critical theory and constructivist qualitative methodologies. We wish to explore the reasons for these tensions, offering insights on how they might be employed together to fruitful purposes.

Critical theory and research:

The term Critical theory has its origins in the 20th century Frankfurt School, and now is associated with scholars across a range of disciplines. Among these scholars, Anthony Giddens and Jurgen Habermas are two who have been particularly influential in the current project. In media studies, scholars employing a Critical approach include persons such as Andrew Calabrese, Janice Peck, John Durham Peters, Hanno Hardt, Todd Gitlin, Douglas Kellner, Kevin Robins, Slavko Splichal, Thomas Streeter, Dan Schiller, Janet Wasko, and others. While early research in this tradition focused on class oppression, more recent works have argued that focusing only on one form of oppression (class vs. race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) denies the frequent interconnections to be found between them.

Research that aspires to be critical seeks, as its purpose of inquiry, to confront injustices in society. Following a tradition associated with Antonio Gramsci, critical researchers aim to understand the relationship between societal structures (especially those economic and political) and ideological patterns of thought that constrain the human imagination and thus limit opportunities for confronting and changing unjust social systems. Critical theorists are committed to understanding the complexity of such relations, however, and thus distance themselves from what they see as reductionist Marxist approaches. Critical theorists hold that these earlier approaches offered no ability to explain social change. Thus, in contrast to what they believe was an overemphasis on the determinative nature of economic and political structures, critical theorists are interested in social change as it occurs in relation to social struggle.

Critical researchers assume that the knowledge developed in their research may serve as a first step toward addressing such injustices. As an approach with a definite normative dimension, the research aims for a transformative outcome, and thus is not interested in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Some critical researchers, in fact, argue that such a “neutral” stance toward research can too easily play into the conservative agendas of those who would rather preserve than challenge the status quo (see, e.g., Ferguson and Golding, 1998).

In media research, critical theorists have largely focused their efforts on analyses that highlight the relationship between various media industries, policies, and ideological systems, although some have focused primarily upon the ideological analysis of media texts. Early work in the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, however, employed ethnographic methodologies to delineate relationships between class position and media preferences or “taste.” Other scholars have explored the relationship between interpretive strategies and hegemonic positions.

Humanistic and critical research:

Because critical theory brings a specific standpoint and theoretical orientation to its research questions, it cannot be said to be humanistic in the sense that usually defines qualitative research. While qualitative, interpretive research foregrounds the meanings research participants ascribe to their own actions, critical researchers seek analytically to place such actions in a wider context that is limited by economic, political, and ideological forces, forces that might otherwise remain unacknowledged. Critical theorists thus require a greater measure of autonomy from the persons studied, or, to use anthropological terms, a more ‘etic’ than ’emic’ position from which to analyze and construct arguments. In the classic debate between Marxism and liberal social science, as Morrow (1994, 54) describes it, “materialism refers to the historical analysis that stressed explanations based on external “material” structures (social and economic), as opposed to the voluntary actions of individuals who choose their own fate.” In short, while constructivist or humanistic qualitative research is primarily interested in these voluntary actions, critical qualitative research is concerned with the constraints that limit such actions.

It could be said that Marxism, which obviously informs some assumptions of critical theory, shares an interesting point of commonality with logical positivism. With its emphasis upon structural determination, it might be possible to conceive of a Marxist analysis that explores human action in positivist, causal terms. Such an analysis would highlight the ways in which individual actions were determined by such “variables” as class position, ideological identification, etc.; such variables could be seen to be predictive of certain outcomes. Most critical theorists would reject such an analysis as reductionist, however. We would instead reserve some space for social change, in keeping with such theories of social action as that elaborated in Giddens’ structuration theory. This theory stresses that while individual agency is always subscribed within larger structures, there is still no way to completely predict how and in which circumstances voluntarism might be made available, or what its effects on society might be.

In contrast to some humanistic qualitative researchers who rely upon the claims of science to affirm their study’s validity, critical researchers distance themselves from methodologies that are imported from the natural sciences. Qualitative research that emerges from a critical tradition, therefore, often encounters from its audience less perceived need to argue for a study’s validity using terms imposed from logical positivism. Moreover, Critical researchers believe that in their attention to the role of power in social reality, their analyses are at the metatheoretical level. They thus may encompass and draw upon research from other paradigms, offering an explanation of the workings of power that are often unexamined in logical positivist approaches (with their focus on causal relations between variables) and in humanistic approaches (with their focus on human explanations of actions or meanings).

Shared assumptions between humanistic and critical qualitative research:

Despite important ontological and epistemological differences, critical theorists who employ qualitative research methods share several assumptions with more humanistically-oriented qualitative researchers:

1. Scholars in both humanistic and critical qualitative research traditions affirm that social relations, as well as analyses constructed by researchers, must be interpreted. Both traditions are thus more interested in offering interpretations than in elucidating natural laws of causality.

2. Both, therefore, offer a challenge to logical positivism, arguing that dynamic social and cultural structures, rather than certain distinguishable variables, constrain human actions.

3. Thus, both are open to the possibility of social change.

4. As a further challenge to logical positivism, both eschew the problem of bias in research. Humanistic, constructivist researchers argue that “bias” should be reconceptualized in light of the subjective position of the researcher, viewed as that which informs and strengthens one’s interpretation. Critical researchers, particularly those operating within post-colonialist and feminist paradigms, tend to insist upon a recognition of power differentials between research participants and those conducting the research, thus locating “bias” in social systems rather than or in addition to a particular research situation.

5. Both traditions stress that meaning and language are socially constructed (although critical researchers are quick to point out that while interpretations may be constructed, forces of oppression are real in their consequences and hence may be understood as such).

6. Both are also interested in how meanings may remain the same or change over time.

7. Both are concerned with a reasoned analysis of social life (although critical theorists extend this concern to relate such a reasoned analysis with emancipation).

8. Scholars in both traditions evaluate their arguments in light of a community of researchers of which they are a part.

9. As a result of the prior two commonalities, both are at some distance from the postmodernist turn that engenders skepticism toward such reasoned analyses and affirms radical relativism over a measure of credibility lodged in authoritative consensus.

Weaknesses and cautions regarding this paradigm:

One of the charges against critical theory is its tendency toward elitism. With its proponents’ commitment to the idea that research can bring about a better and more equitable world, critics charge that critical theorists tend to assume that they are not only more capable of analyzing a situation than most; they are better equipped to offer a proscriptive plan of action. Critics charge that this often brings theorists outside of their realms of expertise so that the insights they offer are naive and unworkable in the contemporary setting.

Further, critics charge that critical theorists can be unwilling to listen to the experiences of those most adversely effected by current policies and the status quo, as they tend to focus their analyses on persons and institutions in positions of power and authority. This, critics note, causes critical theorists to be out of touch with the very persons they purport to be most interested in helping.

The current project attempts to address these concerns, with its emphasis upon listening to people who are disadvantaged in the contemporary situation. The project retains the assumption that critical theorists aim to offer an emancipatory analysis, thus making it a non-relativist project. It is perhaps best described, using the Marxist anthropologist Sherry Ortner’s (1993) phrase, as an “issues-oriented ethnography,” as it seeks to explore the ways in which societal issues and their contradictions are worked out in the context of complex “lived” lives that are situated with reference to class, race, place, gender, and other identifications.

Addressing common concerns from the logical positivist framework:

“Objective” analysis:

In their embrace of a normative perspective, Critical theorists make no claims that their analyses are “objective” in the sense usually meant by logical positivists. In fact, critical theorists argue that the subjective/objective dualism masks the ways in which both positions are limited by the social forces that inform all human action and analysis. Critical qualitative research acknowledges subjectivism in the sense that learnings and interpretations cannot be based on logic and scientific analysis only. While it affirms that knowledge can never be separated completely from the researcher’s own experience, it rejects the notion that all analyses are relative. It asserts that rational analysis is fundamental to human emancipation, and hence embraces what Morrow (1994) calls critical realism

Data analysis and verification:

Critical researchers assume that their task is to expose the hidden assumptions that guide both research respondent statements and often, initial analyses of data. Researchers therefore bring a level of scrutiny to their task that includes rooting out the meanings of what is left unsaid as well as that which is stated. The research is verified as other members of the research community offer corroboration that has come from their own research experiences.

Sample representativeness, typicality, and generalizability:

In a response similar to that of constructivism, critical researchers employing qualitative research would note that we are not seeking to explain the “typical” person, but to analyze that person’s possibilities and limits within a culture. Each person, following Sartre, may be seen as a “universal singular” – a being at once unique and the embodiment of the social world that has reflexively produced her. In this approach, individuals are not seen as “types” or members of aggregate groups (although they may be both of these). Individuals instead are approached as beings that inhabit subject positions that are possible within a culture. Because individuals are members of society and must act within the society, they share certain understandings and meanings; if they did not, they could be considered insane, which is societal terms is the designation given to persons whose social realities have no seeming connection to those around them. Thus, taking an individual as a “unit” or starting point of analysis leads us to conclusions about cultural possibilities and limits, not to explanations that may be extended to others deemed to be “like” her in some way. Again, as in constructivism, we generalize not to peoples’ behaviors or motivations, but to the culture with its creativities and constraints.


The test of validity in the case of critical constructivist research is directly related to its stated purpose of inquiry. The research is valid to the extent that the analysis provides insight into the systems of oppression and domination that limit human freedoms, and on a secondary level, in its usefulness in countering such systems.


Many interesting works in media studies are addressing themselves to critical and qualitative approaches to study, and our work – especially on the Digital Divide – is a part of this collection. Because the Internet is a relatively recent popular media, there are many questions that emerge relative to how the Internet may inhibit or promote freedoms and justice. Studies linking qualitative and critical research can address these questions, adding an important historical perspective to analyses that are often either overly optimistic or pessimistic. We invite you to explore our publications and offer your responses to our work as it seeks to flesh out this emergent research paradigm.

Linked terms in the text:

Constructivist methodologies: Refers to a qualitative, humanistic research approach that foregrounds the social construction of knowledge. See Constructivist Methods.

Frankfurt School: A program of research established in pre-World War II Germany that was discontinued by Hitler and later reestablished in the U.S. Members of the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Hertbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, attempted to analyze culture within a distinctlyMarxist tradition. Inflected with their experience of the Holocaust and Jewish-German exile, their analyses of the role of culture in human oppression were understandably pessimistic.


Guba, E.G. & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N.K. Denzin &Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 195-220.

Kincheloe, J. & McLaren, P. (1994). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In N.K. Denzin &Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 195-220.

Morrow, Ramond. (1994). Critical theory and methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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