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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research

2.4.1 The Development of Critial Social Research Critical theory Critical hermeneutic analysis Knowledge-constitutive interests Critical theory and critical social research

Activity 2.4.3 Critical Theory
One approach that emerged out of the humanist tendency of Marxism was ‘critical theory’ developed by a group of Marxist academics at the University of Frankfurt (who became known as the Frankfurt School). Frankfurt School critical theory has subsequently been developed, amongst others, in the work of Jürgen Habermas.

Theodor Adorno was the principal theoretician of the Frankfurt School and he attempted to reintroduce the ‘subject’ into Marxist analysis. Adorno was influenced by Frederic Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, the latter despite the fact that Nietzsche’s philosophy inter alia supported extreme individualism and was adopted by Hitler’s fascists as a justification of their beliefs. (Nietzsche is also often seen as one of the early influences on postmodernism, see Section

Adorno shared Nietzsche’s view of the individual as spontaneous, creative and autonomous but unlike Nietzsche’s idealism Adorno argued that in capitalist mass society, despite the ideology of individualism, it was almost impossible for individuals to be autonomous.

Further, Adorno’s views on reason and domination were influenced by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche refused to endorse any account of reason as a thoroughly benign, or even disinterested force. Nietzsche argued that the development and deployment of reason was driven by power. Above all else, Nietzsche conceived of reason as a principal means of domination; a tool for dominating nature and others. Nietzsche vehemently criticized any and all non-adversarial accounts of reason. On this reading, reason is a symptom of, and tool for, domination and hence not a means for overcoming or remedying domination. Adorno came to share some essential features of this basically instrumentalist account of reason. The book he wrote with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is a foremost text of critical theory, grapples with precisely this account of reason. However, Adorno refrained from simply taking over Nietzsche’s account in its entirety. Most importantly, Adorno basically shared Nietzsche’s account of the instrumentalization of reason. However Adorno insisted against Nietzsche that the transformation of reason was less an expression of human nature and more a consequence of contingent social conditions which might, conceivably, be changed. Where Nietzsche saw domination as an essential feature of human society, Adorno argued that domination was contingent and potentially capable of being overcome. (Fagan, 2005, Section 2)

Adorno (Adorno et al., 1976) argued that the task of critical theory was to critique philosophy with a view of developing ‘critical social consciousness’. That is, to try and understand how social processes and structures actually impose meaning on the individual. The aim of critical theory is to restore an awareness that people are active, yet historically limited, subjects and to try to identify which forms of constraint on human freedom are necessary and which are historically specific.

Habermas argued for a dialectical approach that links the method of Verstehen with causal analytic science but which transcends both through a process of critique that relates theory to history. In this endeavour, Habermas made use of hermeneutic analysis. Critical hermeneutic analysis
Hans Jürgen Gadamer adopted a critical approach to hermeneutics (Section to enable him to develop a critical analysis of history. He located the hermeneutic circle of understanding in a wider social context in order to both understand, as far as possible, the historical meaning and to critique the current understanding that historians have of history.

In short, Gadamer opposed the idea that 'history' recreates the ‘reality’ of the historical past rather that history establishes an understanding that contextualises the past in its historical, socio-economic and cultural setting, albeit not free from current ideological views of the past. A critical approach to iterations of the hermeneutic circle increases the understanding of the past and reduces the ideological influence of the present on that understanding.

Habermas used this notion of critical hermeneutic reflection to aid his dialectical analysis of what constituted ‘true’ knowledge. For Habermas (1987), hermeneutics is a type of inductive process that starts from an initial understanding of specific events or texts (the parts) and proceeds to the attempt to grasp the meaning of the whole. The dialectical element comes in as this initial understanding alternates with an attempt to take the holistic meaning as a basis for defining the parts more clearly. If the individual parts cannot be understood more fully by doing this then the overall grasp of the whole is mistaken and one has to start again. A new holistic reflection is necessary to redefine the meaning of the whole so that it will take account of these parts. This attempt goes on until the entire meaning has been grasped. [example?]

Habermas adopted an approach that is on the one hand ‘scientific’ but also took account of the historical context. This is essentially a process of attempting to place a Verstehen approach to phenomenology in a wider social and historical context. Knowledge-constitutive interests
Habermas (1987) developed Weber’s notion of social action and was concerned to identify the kinds of knowledge that could ‘truly orient action’. He developed the concept of ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’, in which he argued that knowledge is not self-evident but constituted according to (that is, based upon) prevailing 'interests'. By 'interests' Habermas meant the rationale for developing knowledge.

Habermas identifies three types of knowledge-constitutive interests the technical, the practical and the emancipatory.

  • Technical knowledge-constitutive interests refer to those aspects of knowledge concerned with manipulation of the environment, of control over natural objects and events. This is close to what we might call applied science.
  • Practical knowledge-constitutive interests are concerned with the ‘hermeneutic’ task of extending understanding in intersubjective relations. The aim being to achieve consensus, community and mutual understanding.
  • Emancipatory knowledge-constitutive interests are pitched at a more abstract level and involve liberating people from the specific constraints of their particular context, (or socio-historical moment, as Habermas called it). This is achieved through ‘self reflection’.

Habermas thus sees critical theory as the basis for rational change via the self-awareness of people (which reflects the humanist Marxist perspective). A self-awareness that comes from not only developing knowledge but by analysing the constitutive interests that impinge on the construction of knowledge.

Activity 2.4.3
Write down in your own words what you understand by Habermas' three 'interests'. Critical theory and critical social research
It is important not to confuse critical social research, which is a broad approach to sociological thinking, with (Frankfurt School) ‘critical theory’. Critical theory is a specific theoretical perspective within critical social research, much as structural functionalism is an approach within positivism.

Unfortunately, some commentators give the impression that all critical approaches are dependent on critical theory. For example, Brian Fay’s (1987) Critical Social Science, despite its title, is primarily an exploration of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Martin Hammersley’s (1995) positivist critique of critical research also primarily engages with the epistemology of critical theory and fails to address critical social research methodology. Similarly, Ben Agger’s (1998) Critical Social Theories: An Introduction focuses on critical theory and later postmodernist developments. .


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