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Critical Paradigm


The present research paper will study the essence and history of the critical paradigm in the field of social studies. It will discover the main theories within this paradigm and their ontological and epistemological aspects. It will also present the three studies that employed the selected theories and demonstrate how the theories explained the phenomenon studied. Finally, it will propose a hypothetical study that could use a chosen theory as a framework.

Keywords: critical paradigm, radical feminist theory, ideology.

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Every piece of knowledge in this world is subjective, because it is inevitably based on the subjective platform of assumptions a researcher is bound to make with regards to ontology, epistemology, and methodology of his study. In other words, every piece of information a researcher qualifies as relevant and credible is based upon his covenant to understand reality, knowledge, and the process of research. Therefore, it is possible to say that the history of political and social science is embedded in the evolution of human logic and models of thinking, i.e. paradigms, which defined the modes of perception and interpretation of numerous phenomena of human life. The fact that different researchers adhered to different paradigms has conditioned the diversity of the range of theories and cognitive strategies, which has ultimately contributed to the accumulation of the greater variety and completeness of knowledge available to humanity.

The heritage of global research rests upon post-positivist, critical, interpretive, and normative paradigms. This paper will discuss the evolution of the critical paradigm and its relation to political ideology and propaganda.

The Essence of Critical Paradigm

Critical paradigm postulated that reality is a product of interaction among the political, socio-cultural, economic, ethnic, and gender factors. The higher is the perceived quality of these factors, the better the perception of reality gets (Ernest, 1994). Unlike other ontological platforms that argued objective independence or relativity of existing phenomena, historical connotation of reality, or historical realism, has for the first time implied that reality is conditioned and, therefore, can be controlled, transformed and manipulated (Grix, 2004). The proponents of the critical paradigm believed that the social development and political doctrine is consequential and is affected by the standards of economic development, cultural traditions, international ties, and social conventions.

All of these elements act as social constructs that every member of society accepts a priori when forming individual interpretation of reality, attitudes, opinions, values, and conforming to the patterns of established behavior (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). At this point, the critical paradigm introduces the notion of power as the center of social construction and argues its capacity to attribute priority to the governing concept of reality, social need, and general welfare. In other words, power defines the uniform reality (knowledge) and controls its accessibility in society (Ceci, Limacher, & McLeod, 2002).

Critical paradigm understands language as the main instrument of power institutions. It claims that language has long exceeded its function of labeling the elements of reality. As the primary tool of social culture, language defines reality for the members of relevant socio-cultural groups (Frowe, 2001). The process of targeted interpretation of reality is known as ideology. Within the framework of the critical paradigm, ideology is the main instrument of the successful functioning of the power elite because it secures its supremacy and legitimacy in the existing social structure. Ideology is based upon the transcendental values applied to social existence on the assumption of its vital issues. It includes a consensus about social reality, a designated system of values, principles of social functions distribution, and the rationale for unequal representation of individuals in social life (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2009).

It is believed that the “pre-existing system” of controlled reality is inevitably plagued by social stratification (Crotty, 1998, p. 53). It emerges as a result of the original division into the governing elite and the governed communities and develops due to the ideological bias unfailingly supporting the interests of the privileged cultural, racial, and gender power groups (Siegel, 2006).

The anti-foundational concept of the critical paradigm is also furnished through the change of dominating ideologies. It is the nature of ideology to enforce specific evaluation of the current situation and project into the future while critical paradigm is bound to continuously challenge existing ideology. As an advanced political myth, ideology shapes a dynamic model of social development and shakes the foundations of reality by urging transformation and revolution (Crotty, 1998).

It is possible to trace the origins of critical thought in the Ancient Greece and the historical work of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. The narration contained an in-depth open-minded analysis of inter and intrastate relations. He investigated the reasons of the lingering military crisis between the two leading states of that time. He conjectured that empires were rooted in power and doomed to subdue the weak and conflict with rivals of equal potency in order to sustain own prestige and influence. He mentioned that the power of the state established the socio-cultural and economic interests of the state and asserted their priority over individual interests of the citizens of that state (Boucher, 1998).

Historical or political realism was later embraced as a political and legal stance of the philosophy of Machiavelli. His ideas on the state and its functioned were based on the studies of contemporary governments and expertise retrieved from the experience of the ancient civilizations. Machiavelli (1531) advocated that the research of the past allows making valuable conclusions, generalizations, and understanding of the present environment and the future outcomes. He believed that the government represented a concentration of power based upon love or fear of the citizens. He argued that, in order to govern the nation, it was necessary to know the human interests, to understand the causes that provoke certain needs and behavioral patterns, and, what is better, to formulate these interests through the set of psychological stimuli. He found that religion was the most efficient instrument of social manipulation and integration as it had power to attribute supernatural value to different interests and endeavors of the state (House, 1991).

Thomas Hobbes (1660) further developed the idea of power and its legitimacy. He argued that people voluntarily form a state with its regulation, culture and ideology in order to protect existence from the anarchy and destruction of the egoistic self. Therefore, people are willing to sacrifice their individual visions of objective reality for the cloak of subjective ideology in exchange for the guarantee of public peace and security.

Hans J. Morgenthau (1970) further suggested that there was no universal ethics or morality as any constructive decision or action had to be embedded in the situational elements, i.e., economic, social, cultural, and political factors of specific environments. He found that among else the role of ideology was to provide conventional knowledge on what is right and what is wrong.

If the above mentioned steps approached the formation of a critical paradigm, then neo-Marxism was its prime. It is necessary to give credit to the classical Marxist theory noting that it has committed philosophy to critically assess social practice and align it with the growth of general welfare. Karl Marx has carried out a unique economic, social, philosophic and political research to criticize capitalism. In turn, neo-Marxism introduced the concept of society as a system of total pervasive state control. Unlike its predecessor that related control to direct exploitation of the lower tier of society by the powerful elite, the new theory saw control as the invisible hand of ideology that substituted the natural human values into surrogates. These surrogate values were imposed to prevent uncontrolled individual development and unpredictable claims on freedom and support the established social order. The state realized its obtrusive program by regulating all spheres of life of its citizens from education and work to family and art. The proponents of the critical paradigm argued the need to oppose the dominating rationale by critically assessing the environment, detecting systemic flaws and directions for improvements. A researcher had to stand as an outsider, uncover social decay, and seek the perspective for emancipation, i.e., the way to free people from inequality and redirect social devotement towards greater freedom, justice and humanism (Ingram & Simon-Ingram, 1992).

It is not surprising that these ideas emerged in the philosophic circles of Germany amidst the social crisis in the 30s of the past century, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of the WWII. Members of the Frankfurt School of social theory, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herber Marcuse, are considered to be the archetypes behind the critical paradigm (Geuss, 1981).

Horkheimer and Adorno (1947) argued that having withdrawn from religion towards rationality, society has both gained and lost. On the one hand, it has been able to fully realize its potential in terms of economic productivity, efficiency of state institutions, quality of social interaction, and spread of education and art. On the other hand, it has lost its natural connection to life and the sense of living. The substitution of faith by “instrumental rationality” has undermined the critical approach to the phenomenon of existence and replaced it with the search for utility and utilitarian functionality (p. 33).

This artificial rationality could not be independently conceived by people. It had to be imposed through the explanation of new facts, rules, goals, and means. Unable to cope with the speed of innovation, change and technological progress, society grew excessively reliant upon the media that eagerly provided the calculated opinion of the ruling class. Philosophers noted that, by giving up critical thinking, imagination, emotionality, and intuition, society has voluntarily limited perception to the mere registration of issued facts and abidance by the established rules. Their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) speaks against the ideology of rationalization and for emancipation, i.e., freedom of human thinking. It admonishes that the world is doomed to repeat the experience of the WWII as an inevitable outburst of violence in otherwise marginally regulated society.

Herber Marcuse (1964) argued the inferiority of capitalism and communism as well as the way they were antithesized through the dominant ideologies of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to fit the social perception of the good and the bad social structure. He believed that both systems were socially oppressive and manipulative. They equally imposed comfortable “unfreedom” by popularizing communist ideology, on the one hand, and “consumerism”, on the other. He exposed the enslaving role of advertising and mass media disseminating false needs and lifestyles. His One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964) demanded the “great refusal” of the positivist doctrine and critical analysis of the existing social organization in the full scale of its historical, geo-political, economic, psychological, and cultural legacy. It argued the need for revaluation of social development through incorporation of the principles of relevancy, equality, justice, and participation.

Throughout its evolution, the critical paradigm has generated theories trying to explain the nature of power and political function in terms of social factors. Different theorists emphasized priority of a selected factor or a set of factors that empowered individuals and played a definitive role in the ongoing social phenomenon. Marxism argued that politics and ideology were driven by the economic processes and represent attachments to the basic structure of the human society. Its proponents believed that politics was a derivate of economy and existed to protect social stratification, interests of the elite and accumulation of private property (Ingram & Simon-Ingram, 1992).

Another concept stated that law was a primary source of politics and knowledge evaluation. It advocated that law should be the ultimate figure of merit in the state because, being accepted as a common standard of justice and security, it is capable of establishing a socio-political compromise between the government and individual citizens. From this standpoint, it is possible to see the social development as a history of changing legal doctrines. Therefore, it is possible to assume that the social and political research can be narrowed down to the critical evaluation of the rule of law while the function of the governing power is to support ideology maintaining the current legal framework (Rush, 2004).

Some researcher took a direction of cultural research. This approach reviews political and social processes in terms of their relation to cultural values. It argues that the life of the state is a product of culturally conditioned attitudes and behaviors of its citizens. People tend to respond to different phenomena they experience through the prism of ideological, structural and personal values. This is a combination of traditional belief into morality and preferability of specific socio-political constructs and principles (democratic or authoritarian, federal or centralized, monarchy or constitution, etc.), rightfulness and sufficiency of certain amount of freedom provided by the functional political regime and ideological doctrine, and selection of personal qualities and attributes of a legitimate leader (Couzens & McCarthy, 1994).

For instance, a nation, whose culture is traditionally embedded in the values of freedom, privacy and individualism, is likely to accept democratic governance, federalism, the rule of law, and self-made charismatic leaders. It is possible to see the accurateness of this critical assessment by the example of the U.S. On the other hand, a nation, whose culture is rooted in collectivism, male dominance, and anarchy, would require a tougher hand of ideology and a more rigid social system control. This can be seen by the example of the East European states.

The aim of the critical model is to understand and improve social organization by finding cause-and-effect relations in the chain of social evolution, detect connectivity and consistency among related phenomena, provoke action, and transform society into the environment of freedom and equality.

Feminism and Its Relationship to the Critical Paradigm

Feminism is one of the theories that originated from critical inquiry into the essence of gender equality of social relations. It is necessary to understand that feminism emerged as an ideology of the equality of women and a socio-political movement. Therefore, its roots were distinctively practical. Having failed to find solutions to improve the status of women in the existing socio-cultural context, the theorists of feminism had to go beyond traditional masculine social science, criticize traditional knowledge, trace the origins of gender discrimination, set forth forcefully their claims of gender equality, and formulate innovative theoretical approaches to the interpretation of culture (Lanning, 2012).

Even though it is possible to trace the historical studies discussing the oppression of women in patriarchal societies, they did not dare at anything greater than merely observing and ascertaining this social wrong. At the time of the eradicative changes delivered by the French Revolution of 1789-1793, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was exclusively speaking of the rights of men while women were inspired by the perspective of freedom and equality. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published her vision in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman following the Olympe de Gouges’ (1791) Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. The birth of feminism at this period was not accidental. It was nurtured by intellectual and liberal philosophers of the time, such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who developed a general theory of human rights. Feminist ideas were supported by social reformers like Henri Saint-Simon, Robert Owen and Fourier (Skeggs, 2008).

However, the analytical feminist theory was conceived after one of the most prominent critical theorists, Karl Marx (1981) wrote: “Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex” (p.127). Feminism got its critical stance from the Frankfurt School of social theory and countercultural protests in the middle of the 20c. It split into three major movements: liberal, socialistic and radical. The liberal movement lead by Betty Friedan maintained that the problem of gender inequality sprang from the lack of rights attributed to women and believed that legal reforms could solve the issue. The socialistic movement was lead by Mary O’Brien and Linda Gordon, who synthesized Marxist and feminist ideas to argue that gender equality was conditioned by economic injustice and social stratification into economic classes (Ahmed, 2010).

However, in the late 60s of the past century, the radical feminist movement endeavored the most thorough and comprehensive critical search for the essence of social suppression of women. They found it in the patriarchal principles of the social foundations and control, i.e., a society made by men and for men. The famous representatives of this movement were Andrea Dworkin, Shulamith Firestone, Mary Daly, and Kate Millet. Their works paved the theoretical ground for modern feminism. They started a tradition of critical socio-cultural approach to the causes of female discrimination and proceeded by exposing gender inequality as an essential aspect of traditional patriarchal society (Freedman, 2003).

The ontological position the radical feminism theory stands on the assumption that all of the available knowledge was accumulated, analyzed and structured by men in a distinctively discriminative way. Therefore, all scientific research is discriminative towards and biased against women by its very masculine nature. The unilateral masculine vision of traditional scientific inquiry and knowledge supported patriarchal authority. It created theories that justified and enforced the inferior status of women in general as well as their subordinate and insignificant social role in particular. Having uncovered the lack of objectivity as the fundamental attribute of the masculine knowledge, the theory of radical feminism discarded it as useless and incapable to describe reality. They argued that true knowledge should incorporate an egalitarian view of gender (Stanley & Wise, 1993).

Hence, its critical epistemology required a transformation of the traditional role of a scientist into a “situated knower,” who could deliver “gender situated knowledge” (Harding, 1991, p. 12). This approach required increasing the number of female scientists in all traditional scientific fields and accumulating new knowledge rooted in female values, opinions, interests, and styles to generate a counterbalance to the classical patriarchal knowledge. In the fields of the social and political science, a feminist position is expected to create an innovative platform for the understanding and distribution of power, social hierarchy, and equality (Duran, 1991; Janack, 1997).

Within this framework, Kate Millet (1977) substantiated her “theory of patriarchy.” Her book Sexual Politics insisted that the social, ideological, political and family structures were inherently masculine, i.e., required female subordination to male rationale and authority. Millet argued that the inferior social role of women was not biologically conditioned by their physical, mental and emotional weaknesses but resulted from social agreement on feminine as a deviation from the alleged social standard. She found that androcentrism of traditional science has had its toll upon society as a whole. The masculine character is perceived in the very understanding of science as strictly objective, rational, impersonal, and emotion-free. It rejected intuition, sensual perception, spirituality and other forms of experience that could not be determined as masculine.

Moreover, it rejected women as an object of study. For example, the study of biology, medicine and psychology have been developed as the observation of men. The whole history of mankind was build around great events characterized with the change of power and wealth while the common life was neglected as it did not raise interest of male historians. Millet argued that science has never been neutral as well as all of the knowledge it produced throughout the history of humanity. She found the limitation of masculine science and masculine pattern of social development in their obsession on power and dominance over nature, woman, other nations, races, etc. Masculine worldview with its yearning for power and ownership imposed by means of aggression and violence has historically marked gender, social and international relations. This point of view highlights the emancipation of women as an element of social emancipation against all forms of oppression and inequality. Millet showed that sexual policy, gender stereotyping and pornography intentionally controlled gender relations by imposing patriarchal cultural ideology through social media.

The feminist perspective is aimed at going beyond gender limitations in the social and scientific development, eliminating the ideology of dominance and subordination as such, and introducing a more harmonizing modes of gender co-existence.

Studies that Used the Radical Feminist Theory

Dr. Salamandra Christa (2012) presented a female point of view on the transformation of the Arab women and Arab gender relations under the influence of the changing socio-political environments and cultural propaganda. She argued that the pan-Arab television networks are using the female infatuation with soap operas to educate them on the proper female roles and traditional religious values while its commercial rivals sow the seeds of emotional unrest, gender conflict, and critics of enslaving Islamic values. The center of the discussion is the adaptation of the Turkish soap opera Noor. It promotes the lifestyles that the Arab women want and details on the means and behavior they can employ to claim progressive transformation of female status. During the three years on air, the notorious series has allegedly provoked a huge panic and gender unrest in the Arab world. In addition to its demonstratively radical feminist connotation, Noor is believed to be part of the Western propaganda that strived to disrupt the Arab society by promising sexual freedom and economic equality to its female members.

The study by Megahed Nagwa and Stephen Lack (2011) took the critical approach in evaluating the lasting neglect of women’s rights in Egypt and Tunisia rooted in the colonial bias against female development, Islamic culture of the region and traditionally patriarchal social structure. The authors uncovered the source for conventional gender inequality in the educational and media platforms that conspired with the governing male authority to maintain ignorance and conviction of own inferiority among women. They argued that “Islamic teaching and local traditions concerning women's roles in a given society, Western, European colonial perception of women's rights, and national gender-related policy reforms” were intentionally employed as uniform cultural and religious barriers to hamper feminine development across the Arab world (p. 397). The authors welcome the Arab Spring that is expected to introduce democratic ideology and eliminate gender inequality in the Arab world.

Fatima Seedat (2013) used critical paradigm in her study “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability”. The author insisted on differentiating between the “Muslim women's anticolonial equality struggles” and the Western concept of feminism. She traced the socio-economic and cultural roots of both phenomena and argued that these historical precedents prevent the convergence of the two ideas falsely confused by the media. Seedat critically evaluates the unique environmental features that conditioned gender inequality in the Muslim society and determined the aspirations of Muslim women with regards to their progressive participation in a liberal state.

Hypothetical Study Overview

A hypothetical study that could use radical feminist theory as a framework could focus on the critical analysis and differentiation of Western ideology of feminism and the feminine liberation movement in the context of China. The researcher would have to compare and contrast the original platforms of gender inequality and their causes. Then he would trace historical evolution of culture, ideology, policies, education, lifestyles, and religious dogmas in both regions and critically assess their effect upon the formation of female attitudes towards freedom and the level of satisfactory gender equality. In order to be objective in this analysis, the researcher will have to hold the position of a situated knower, i.e., remain gender neutral in his discussion and conclusions.


It is possible to conclude that the critical paradigm of research allowed taking a fresh and systemic look upon the controversial phenomena of human society. It stood behind the majority of innovative and revolutionary theories of the 20c., which revealed the lingering imperfections and imbalances in social, cultural, political, gender, and economic contexts of life. It worked to eliminate bias and prejudices imposed and maintained by corrupt ideology and propaganda. Modern studies employing the radical feminist theory advance the understanding of harmonized gender relations and promote the global emancipation of women.

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