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Critical Theory in Sociology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1480 words Published: 31st May 2017

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The critical theory is a social theory, which is known to criticise and trying to change society as a whole. The traditional theory only described and explained society. Theorists such as Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal and Reich Fromm, were the main theorists who took part in the Frankfurt School, In Germany in the late 1920’s at the institute fur Sozialforschung. The Frankfurt’s school’s theory of society is very negative about how society runs, reasons for this is the increase in capitalism, and that societies social structure has been separated, (Swingewood 200, p. 130). Throughout the essay, there shall be more information about the Frankfurt school, and what they believed and wanted to change in society, also more information about what is critical theory and what it is critical of in society, also more information about the traditional theory. The work of Frankfurt school become very influential in the social sciences in the 1960s. Culture industry worked to put together the role of social struggles in the production and reproduction of society. Culture industry worked like an ‘apparatus’ which brought together individuals and got them doing and thinking the same.

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The critical theory may be defined as a theory of setting humans free of human enslavement, and manipulation. Both Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that critical theory is the theory of human emancipation based on free capitalist society, the bourgeoisies controlled the working class through manipulation of interests of politics, media, culture etc…as a silent dominant force. The critical theory argues that there are various types of manipulation, such as; Ideological, this consists of justifying decisions made by enforcing one’s thoughts onto another, secondly, Cultural, this consists of the attempt to commercialise to maintain the status quo of the working class. Finally the psychological manipulation which means that we are more interested in other people’s life and this is because of the decline of the father figure in many families. Horkheimer argued that a capitalist society can only be changed if it becomes more democratic is it could be that “all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus” in a rational society (Horkheimer 1982, 249-250). Horkheimer argued that the only way in which we could fix problems in society, was by introducing the critical theory.

There are four main points for the Critical theory these are; Reflective, this refers to that facts can be revised separately from other things that we may have to learn such as values. Dialectical; this refers to human’s understanding of the world changing as the world changes too. Critical; which refers to stating what is wrong with the current society, and coming up with reasonable ideas on how to change it. Immanent critique is the main support for critical theory.(Adorno, 1991)

Critical theorists argued that Marx did not foresee some key developments on capitalist society. Especially, centralisation and various mechanisms of ideological, cultural and psychological domination, associated in particular with the development of a commercialised mass media. Critical theorists conclude that the working class was no longer the revolutionary agent foreseen by Marx. The only way in which theorists could change the way society was is by firstly stating what is wrong with the current society, has to identify the actors to change it and finally it has to provide achievable goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, “Has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkheimer, 1992, 21).

Critical theorists have argued that humans need to become more aware of how science and other type of facts and knowledge work together in creating oppression.Critical theory identifies facts and everyday life as the foundation for human beings, in waiting that people will realise the power and their influences on their lives and be able to overcome them. Fredrick Taylor introduced science in the 19th century, Henry Ford among many other people was influenced by Fredrick Taylor by his ideas on how to improve and raise production. By being influenced by Fredrick, Henry Ford creating an assembly line. By doing this Ford was able to reduce hours and save money, at the same time produce more. This idea became very popular, companies were able to produce much more with less work due to the right machinery.

Instrumental reason refers to the opening up of reliable modes of organisations, the critical theory criticises the instrumental reason. The reason which why critical theory is critical of instrumental reason is because it raises action, which means this would be a means to an end. The instrumental reason sees individuals as ‘instruments’ instead of humans this was introduced by positivistic science. As mentioned before, in the concentration camps humans were not seen as humans, but they were seen as objects. (Swingewood, 2000). Another example of this could be the rise in tuition fees in 2010, this change would benefit large institutions, especially the government, however it does not benefit the people who would mostly experience the change of this such as students.

Critical theory is also critical of mass culture, mass culture refers to individuals following and believing what the media say. An example of this can be such as girls believe it is always best to be slim. Culture industry refers to anything that gets in the way of freedom. The Frankfurt school gives us useful information about the process of how society changed from traditional culture and modernism in the arts to a mass produced media orientated society. Society has become much more media orientated as technology has become much more advanced,

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The traditional theory was originally known as the ‘positivism’ theory, however, Horkheimer labelled the traditional theory. The traditional theory was based more on facts, the more facts we had about everything, the more knowledge we have. The traditional theory did not see people as ‘humans’, instead humans were looked at as ‘things’ for example in the concentration camps individuals who died, were not looked at as humans dying, but a specimen. Unlike the critical theory, the traditional theory only explains how society is in the present time, where as the critical theory looks at society, what is wrong with it and aims to change it. Positivism functions ideologically, this is done by promoting passive behaviour. Habermas argued that a free society should let people communicate freely without anything getting in the way, when people can do so, this would be known as a free society. Positivists ignore the roles of humans in society, they tend to treat society as a natural process.

Habermas did not agree with Adorno and Horkheimer views that they can identify what is wrong with society and change it, also change the whole technological interaction with nature (Habermas, 1971). Horkheimer continued to argue that critical theory should focus on society being complete, e.g. how society became how it is in the present time. He argued this could be done by bringing together major social sciences such as geography, economics, sociology, history, science etc (Bohman, 1996). Adorno and Horkheimer’s book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is a text about critical theory, which explains what the Frankfurt School considered as the failure of Enlightenment, the book was published in 1944 in New York. It is one of the main core texts about Critical theory. In the book we can see how Enlightenment norms had turned into their opposite, how democracy had produced fascism and reason had produced unreason.

In conclusion to the above, we can see that there are many different views on how society runs, and as we can see is whether society is fine the way it is, or what should be changed if it’s not. The critical theory is obviously critical of society as it is now, The critical theory is mainly critical of how society is in terms of exploitation of humans., especially jobs such as labour work. However, the critical theory can be negatively criticised as it always looks upon society negatively. Horkheimer argued that the a theory can only be critical if it is explanatory, therefore critical theory should successfully explain what is wrong with the current society and what is needed to make it right, (Bohman, 1996). As we can see, there are many factors that affect society, also we can how society ‘brain washes’ individuals to thinking that they live in an equal society system.


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