Critical theory posits that people’s social constructions are shaped by the social, political, cultural, historical, and economic forces in the environment, particularly forces created by powerful individuals. Over time, the constructions take on the appearance of reality; that is, the social reality, which has in fact grown out of the social context, is assumed to be truth. Because the constructions are so deeply embedded in society (including in the researchers themselves), it is extremely difficult to comprehend that these constructions were spawned in the societal context and are not truths. For example (and any examples chosen are necessarily controversial), the belief that the monogamous union of one male and one female for the purpose of reproduction (that is, heterosexual marriage) is natural is a socially derived position (Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan,2008, p. 13).
Critical theorists would concede that it could be argued that marriage is necessary and important for the social order (as we know it), but they would contend that marriage, as an institution, was generated by the social system; that there are alternatives (same-sex unions, polygamous marriages); and that the “truth” of any “natural” propensity to marry is specious. Ponterotto (2005b) reminded us that “there is no single critical theory” but “there are commonalities among the variants of critical theory” (p. 130). In critical theory, the investigator and the participant form a relationship, and the values of the investigator are vital to the activity. Inquiry, in critical theory, involves the level of dialectism that changes constructions. That is, the investigation involves a dialogue between investigator and other in such a way that the other comes to realize that her or his understanding of the world is derived from the precepts of the social order, and that these precepts can (and should) be altered. In other words, the goal of critical theory is to have the participants view structures for what they are—socially constructed beliefs—rather than as unchangeable truths. Moreover, the dialectic should lead to the participants’ understanding that social action is needed to change the social order, thereby being emancipated from oppression (e.g., oppression resulting from racism, classism, able-bodism, heterosexism, or sexism) (Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan,2008, p. 13).
For example, feminist theory falls into the critical theoretical realm in that it contends that traditional roles for women have been socially determined, that the power in society has been allocated to males, and that these social realities can be altered. Feminism seeks to “raise the consciousness” of women so that they do not consider their place in society to be fixed as truth, but instead understand both the historical context that led to the current social situation and that the first step in change is to reject the traditional roles. Many critical theorists would contend that this worldview involves more than social action, which tends to change society at the margins, and instead necessitates radical change that dramatically replaces current social structures with others (e.g., Marxism) (Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan,2008, p. 14).
Heppner, P. P., Wampold, B. E., & Kivlighan, Jr., D. M. (2008). Research Design in Counseling (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.