At this point, you have learned about four different theoretical paradigms we use to understand communication. One problem with these approaches is they often lack an explicit critique of the status quo of communication. Put another way, they serve as a general approach to understand communication norms rather than challenge them. We all realize that there are communication realities in the world that are hurtful and oppressive to particular people and that there are people in the world that use communication to serve their own needs and interests. How do we bring these communicative practices to light and work to change communication practices that are hurtful?
The critical theories paradigm helps us understand how communication is used to oppress and provides ways to foster positive social change (Foss & Foss; Fay). Critical theories challenge the status quo of communication contexts, looking for alternatives to those forms of oppressive communication. These theories differ from other theoretical approaches because they seek praxis as the overarching goal. Praxis is the combination of theory and action. Rather than simply seeking to understand power structures, critical theories actively seek to change them in positive ways. Easily identifiable examples of critical approaches are Marxism, postmodernism, and feminism. These critical theories expose and challenge the communication of dominant social, economic, and political structures. Areas of inquiry include language, social relationships, organizational structures, politics, economics, media, cultural ideologies, interpersonal relationships, labor, and other social movements.
Origins of Critical Theories in Communication
Marxism is one of the earliest origins of critical theory. In addition, postmodernism, feminism, and postcolonialism have greatly influenced how critical theories have grown and expanded to challenge a greater number of social power structures. While each of these approaches examines a different area of oppression, all are critical approaches to enact great social changes, not only in Western societies, but in cultures worldwide.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Karl Marx’s ideas challenged the status quo of newly emerging industrial societies. As societies moved from agrarian-based economies to ones based in industrial manufacturing, there became an increasing division between the rich and the poor—much like the income inequality talked about so much today. Marx, in two of his most well-known works, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, argued that working-class laborers were being oppressed by those in power, specifically the owners of manufacturing plants.
In any discussion of postmodernism, another critical theoretical perspective, the difficulty of defining the term is invariably part of the discussion. Modern refers to just now (from modo in Latin) and post means after. Thus, this term translates into “after just now”—an idea that can be difficult to wrap our heads around. How do you, for example, point to or mark the period after just now (Covino & Jolliffe, 76)? In discussing the postmodern condition, Lyotard explained the relationship between those who have and don’t have social power: “The [decision-makers] allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on optimizing the system’s performance—efficiency” (27).
A third major influence on the development of the critical theories paradigm comes from feminist theories. Feminist theories explore power structures that create and recreate gendered differentiations in societies (Foss & Foss; Dervin; MacKinnon). Critical feminist theories contend that gender relations are often oppressive to both men and women and that they support an institution based on patriarchal values. Thus, critical feminist theories challenge dominant assumptions and practices of gender in ways that foster more equal and egalitarian forms of communication and social structures in society.
When discussing feminism and feminist theories, we refer to a set of multiple and diverse theories. Feminist theories include a wide range of philosophical arguments, economic structures, and political viewpoints. Some of these include Marxist feminism, which focuses on the division of labor as a source of gender inequality, and liberal feminism, which asserts that men and women should have equal status in the culture—such as voting rights, educational and professional opportunities, and equal pay. Ecofeminism recognizes that all parts of the universe are interconnected and that the oppression of women and other minorities is analogous to the oppression of the natural environment, such as in the cutting down of natural forests to meet consumer demands for paper goods or the killing of animals for the eating of meat.
Critical Theories in Action
Whether we listen to music on our phones, watch TV, go to the movies, or read a magazine, most of us consume media. Have you ever stopped to think about who puts together those messages? Have you wondered what their goals might be and why they want to send the messages they do? One way we can use critical theories is to examine who owns what media to determine what they are trying to accomplish (Croteau & Hoynes). For example, why does General Electric want to own companies like RCA and NBC? Why does a company like Seagram’s want to buy MCA (Universal Studios) and PolyGram Records? What worldviews are these companies creating in the media they produce? These are all questions for which we might consider using theories from the critical theories paradigm. Did you know that in 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the US media (papers, television, movies, magazines, etc.) and that by 2004, that number has dropped down to 5 corporations (Bagdikian)? Using critical theories paradigm, we can begin to examine the messages that so few companies are constructing and their impacts on how we understand the world around us as shaped through these messages.
We use critical theories to reveal a vast range of possible ideological structures that create and foster dominant worldviews and to challenge and change those ideologies that oppress others.
A significant strength of the critical theories paradigm is that it combines theory and practice, seeking to create actual change from theoretical development. Rather than seeking prediction and control or explanation and understanding, critical theories seek social change. The intent behind these theoretical perspectives is to help empower those whose worldviews and ideological perspectives have not found equality in social contexts. At their best, critical theories have the potential to enact large-scale social change for both large and small groups of people.
A potential weakness of critical theories is their dependence on social values. While empirical laws theories seek an objective reality, critical theories highlight subjective values that guide communication behaviors. When values conflict, the question of “Whose values are better?” emerges. Because values are subjective, answering this question is often filled with much conflict and debate. The example of gay marriage highlights a current debate taking place over ideological values. How do we define marriage? And whose definition is best?