Critical Theory in Research

Critical Theory in Research

Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6622-0.ch004
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Based on critical theory, this chapter focuses on the first generation of Frankfurt School (mainly to authors such as T.W. Adorno, M. Horkheimer, and W. Benjamin). For discussing methodology in research, these authors are considered more representative than the younger generation (e.g., Habermas and Honneth) mainly because of the renewed interest in the direct critique of society and because of the failure of the younger generation to produce empirical research. The proponents of critical theory establish connections between theory and practice, in the sense that the social content of research must have human dignity at its centre. The difference between method-led and content-led research is discussed and considered central for this kind of approach to empirical research. Feminist research methodologies and critical race methodology are considered as closely associated with critical theory. These different approaches have developed autonomously from critical theory and are not directly related to it. However, feminist research methodologies and critical race methodology are expounded here because of their similarities to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School aimed at providing an emancipatory approach to empirical research.
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The ‘first generation’ of Frankfurt School, mainly authors such as T.W. Adorno, M. Horkheimer, H. Marcuse and W. Benjamin, have a bad reputation concerning empirical research, in the sense that their critique of social injustices, and modernity more in general, was accused of having paralysing effects on the impulse of researching the circumstances of specific social conditions and social actors. However, recent scholarly studies on Adorno’s Critical Theory (Benzer, 2011; Holloway, Matamoros & Tischler, 2009; Holloway, 2010) and the influence of broader critical approaches (Bonefeld, 2014; Best, Bonefeld & O’Kane, 2018) are making the overall critical enterprise of the early Frankfurt School appealing to several fronts. Not least to those who are not satisfied with the mainstream methods of social sciences, still influenced by positivism (and indeed this term will be used to refer to mainstream social science).

This chapter then explores some fundamentals of Critical Theory’s social philosophy and social criticism considering their potentials for social research. This chapter will provide a broad induction to the approach of Critical Theory and other critical methodologies, such as Feminist Methodologies and Critical Race Methodology, insofar as these approaches have developed methodologies very close to the principles of Critical Theory.

This chapter is targeting undergraduate students, but also post-graduate students and early career researchers who are disappointed in mainstream research methods and their apparent disregard for the emancipatory potentials of social sciences. This chapter aims at explaining as simply as possible the tenets of Critical Theory and how these principles have been applied to empirical research. This chapter may be appealing to postgraduates and early career researchers who are cut out from big research grants, because Critical Theory offers effective tools to pursue an objective social inquiry that is content-led, rather than method-led. In this examination, Critical Theory is considered that of the ‘first generation’ of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, to be precise: Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970), Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993) and Eric Fromm (1900-1980). The reason for privileging the first generation is double: firstly Habermas’ linguistic turn has lost its initial impulse and (contra Marrow, 1994) never really produced empirically-informed critical research (Best, Bonefeld, & O’Kane, 2018); secondly, several scholars are now referring to the ‘negative turn’ of Adorno as one of the main theoretical sources for critical projects and for renewing social analysis (Dinerstein et al., 2020; Holloway, Matamoros & Tischler, 2009).

To our knowledge, there is no systematic presentation of Critical Theory’s approach to empirical research. Marrow’s Critical Theory and methodology (1994) has Habermas’ as a reference point, rather than the ‘first generation’ of the Frankfurt School. The only systematic approach of this kind is in Benzer’s The Sociology of Theodor Adorno (2011), where there are two chapters on Adorno’s empirical studies and methodology. However, these represent philological studies, rather than an exposition of the kind attempted here.

The chapter explores the general approach to Critical Theory paying attention to the type of critique to mainstream social research that its proponents developed during a long period. Furthermore, connections between theory and practice are explored, in the sense that for the proponents of this approach the social content of research must have human dignity at its centre. In this section, the difference between method-led and content-led research will be discussed. Feminist Research Methodologies and Critical Race Methodology can be taken as instances of Critical Theory applied to empirical research; in that sense, these will be briefly presented. Examples of research carried out by proponents of these two approaches will be illustrated. Lastly, this chapter will examine how best to do critical research and will illustrate this with an in-depth example of Critical Theory’s empirical research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Critique: The faculty of our mind to resist the appearance of reality. Research should not simply duplicate reality, it should be able to find out how this reality rests on social relations that are exploitative or unjust.

Method-Led Research: It happens when methodological concerns take over the human interest regarding the content of a specific social issue. With this approach, the fundamental thing is to have a method that is a neutral vis-à-vis social reality and that it may be capable to duplicate reality, rather than show its internal contradictions and its spaces for struggle.

Reification: A social tendency transforming social relations in relations between things; through this phenomenon, human activity is valued not for the relations it establishes but only for the visible and measurable effects it produces.

Theory: Here ‘theory’ means something different from the traditional concept and usage of theory: it is not about a set of abstract concepts. The theory is connected to practice and concepts are derived from a state of things that need to be ‘put right’.

Content-Led Research: It happens when empirical research informs concepts that are already established, and the researcher develops them in comparison with concrete social reality. It allows the theory to be specific and to further articulate its concepts. It allows the content of social reality to appear in the form of social relations between individuals and groups.

Positivism: An approach to the study of social science which privilege facts, narrowly defined empirical evidence and systematically defined methodology. It tends to isolate social facts, disregarding their connections, at the expenses of social relations.

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