Unveiling Oppression: An Exploration of Critical Theory and Its Emancipatory Goals

1. What is the purpose of critical theory? How does it differ from ‘positivist’ or ‘problem-solving’ theory?

Critical theory is a Maxist-inspired school of academic thought or social and political philosophy movement originally associated with the Frankfurt School’s work (How, 2017). Frankfurt School was a group of sociologists at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, and included Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse (Bronner, 2013). As a social theory, critical theory is designed to critique and change the broader society. The aim of critical theory, therefore, is to delve deeper into social life and identify the assumptions that impede humans from fully and truly understanding how the world works (Fraser and Jaegi, 2018). Consequently, Marcuse (2020) identifies critical theory as having the distinguished aim of uncovering the ideology that falsely justify social or economic oppression of some form, and by revealing it as ideology, to result in the duty of ending such oppression. Critical theory achieves this by seeking to contribute to a form of emancipatory enlightenment regarding people’s social and economic life, through which people develop awareness of the oppression they suffer and recognize it as oppression, which results in them being partially emancipated from it (Tyson, 2014).


This aim denotes the narrow meaning of critical theory in philosophy and social sciences, whereby the critical theorists argue that a critical theory is distinct from a traditional theory on the basis of a particular practical purpose. Therefore, according to Horkheimer (1972), a theory is considered critical on to the degree that it purposes to emancipate human beings from slavery, acts as an influence that liberates, and endeavors to establish a world in which humans’ needs and powers are satisfied. From this narrow sense of critical theory’s purpose to demonstrate and convert the conditions that enslave humans, broader meanings of critical theory have been developed, and which seek to identify the various facets of human domination in the modern world (Horkheimer, 1972). The purpose of critical theory, however, in both the narrow and broader senses, is to describe and provide dialectical or subjective foundations for social inquiry that targets to decrease oppression and increase freedom in all their aspects.

Although theory is “always for someone and some purpose’ according to Cox (2019), the different theories that exist compare and contrast in various ways. Critical theory and positivist (or problem-solving) theory are two common-place classes of theory in philosophy and international relations, and which differ in various aspects. First, whereas critical theory is holistic in its approach to the social and political world, and how it works, problem-solving theory is described as being more analytical in this endeavor. According to Cox and Sinclair (1996, p.88), problem-solving theory generally purposes to effectively deal with a given source of problem by ensuring the social and power relationships, and institutions into which these relationships are organized, work smoothly and efficiently.

In this regard, Cox (2019) suggests that positivist theory acknowledges or accepts the world as it finds it by incorporating the existing social and power relations and institutions associated with them as the designated frame or structure for action. On this basis, problem-solving theory is accompanied by the idea that it does not interrogate the fundamental presuppositions associated with the production of knowledge (Brinkat, 2016). As a result of their disregard for epistemological premises and perception of power and social relationships as nonconformist or ahistorical and permanent, problem-solving theory is conceived as being in connivance with the existing order (Cox, 2019). Therefore, problem-solving theory validates and contributes to injustice and/or inequality, instead of generating a system through which they can be reduced. In contrast, critical theory, which is holistic, approaches the social and political world as a whole, instead of as separate parts. This implies that critical theory takes the social and power relationships and institutions seriously and questions them by focusing on and referring to their origins and whether and the manner in which they might be in the changing process (Cox, 2019).

Additionally, unlike the ahistorical account of the social world resulting from problem-solving theory that makes it complicit with the prevailing order by not questioning it, critical theory, by recognizing that all theories are based on a perspective which results from a temporal and spatial position, especially in relation to society and politics, seeks to contribute to understanding of fluid transhistorical processes (Cox, 2019). Following this understanding, and subsequent self-reflection of its social, cultural and political situatedness through which a normative position of the world can be taken, critical theory is perceived as generating knowledge without contributing to and/or accentuating the inequalities and injustices of the status quo (Freyenhagen, 2018).

Critical theory has also been touted as being superior to problem-solving theory. This is because, according to Cox (2019), problem-solving theory draws on its strength from the analytical procedures that underpin it, and which result in it being value-free and therefore, conservative. Through its approach to accounts of the political and international aimed at providing answers that facilitate the smooth working of the social and political relations and their institutions, problem-solving theory makes knowledge a tool of the status quo, dedicated to a conservative plan or arrangement that serves the interests of a given section or class of society that are complacent within the particular order (Cox, 2019). Critical theory, on the other hand, due to its utopian nature, is considered superior as it supports the need for political change.

Even though the aims of critical theory are as practical as those of positivist theory, critical theory’s approach to practice occurs from a point of view that surpasses the existing order’s perspective. As a result, Cox (2019) asserts that while critical theory permits a standardized option that supports a social and political order that contrasts with the existing order, it limits the extent of choice to select orders that practicable alterations of the prevailing world. Therefore, unlike problem-solving theory that seeks a smooth working of power relations and institutions, critical theory questions how these power relations and institutions arose, and guides strategic action targeted at producing an alternative order (Poster, 2019). Critical theory thus produces power-knowledge relations that stress the role of knowledge in reproducing social arrangements that are problematic (Linklater, 1996, p.296).

2. Critically evaluate the contribution of feminism to the study of international relations

Feminism and feminist theories, like other conventional theories such as liberal institutionalism and realism, have contributed to international relations and its outlooks in various ways, and brought about transformative implications for its key concepts. This is despite the fact that the application of feminism to international relations commenced relatively late compared to the other theories.

The first contribution of feminism to international relations was the making of women visible. This, in turn, contributed to the revelation of the gender-based violence that women were and continue to be systematically exposed to (Tickner and True, 2018). By unveiling the routine violence against women, feminism also exposed the international order that unexpressedly accepted as a usual state of affairs a significant proportion of the violence that women experienced. As a result of this, feminism is feted with giving rise to the acknowledgement of the global prevalence of violence against women and consequently, the launch of various campaigns geared towards ending violence against women (Wibben et al., 2019). One of the most popular of these is the ‘UNiTE’ campaign by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

By demonstrating the associations between (private) domestic violence against women and the types of violence they undergo in public, for example in the globalized workplace and during war, True (2015) illustrates that women worldwide enjoyed less social, political and economic rights compared to men. Looking at violence in this spectrum reveals a continuum of violence against women that does not mirror distinct classes of stability or peace, in spite of most societies being perceived as largely stable or peaceful. Therefore, this contribution of feminism to international relations has altered the manner in which the security organs of different states’ perception of the image of violence and insecurity, which is a key attribute of conventional international relations perspectives (True, 2020). Whereas, the traditional theories perceive security as the protection of a state from another, feminism has been able to argue for the addressing of rape and violent acts against women not just from foreign actors, but also fellow citizens (Code, 2002).

Another contribution of feminism to international relations is that it highlighted the exclusion or absence of women from key institutions and decision-making structures and challenged the exclusionary focus of certain areas such as state, sovereignty, politics or military security that are male-dominated (Blanchard, 2003). This gendered exclusion happens despite the essential contribution of women to global politics and the impact of global politics on them, and has seemed to be perpetually justified by the traditional international relations theories (Smith, 2018). Given that the exclusion of women from these domains renders their contributions irrelevant, feminism has endeavored to highlight the false public-private distinction and therefore reveal that the areas in which women were previously excluded, despite not being recognized, were critical to the effective functioning of international relations (Aggestam, Bergman Rosamond and Kronsell, 2019). Feminism also showed that inclusion and exclusion of certain areas as propagated by traditional international relations perspectives is premised on gendered notions of what mattered and what does not.

Additionally, feminism exposed and deconstructed the socially constructed gender norms in a manner that made sense of international relations’ serious consideration of women and gender (Smith, 2018). Construction of gender identities, as opposed to sex identities, promotes normative ideas of what women and men are expected to do. Thus, gender (as socially constructed presumptions) assigned to men or women has resulted in the assumption of the appropriate masculine or feminine behavior by males and females respectively. Whereas masculinity is associated with independence, power, rationale and public sphere, femininity is typically linked with domesticity, the need for protection, irrationality and private sphere (Hooper, 2019). These socially and politically constructed gender identities model and influence global associations and politics as well as international relations theory by producing assumptions on what men or women should do and why (Ashworth and Swatuk, 2019). The gender identities also impact of power distribution and the place of women in global politics, such that female identities (women) are subordinated to male identities (men) (Smith, 2019).

As a result of feminist advocacy by Cynthia Enloe (1989) when she asked ‘where are the women?’, international relations was enabled to identify spaces occupied by women in global politics and to recognize them as a vital component in the international system. Enloe’s (2014) focus on demystifying the distinction of personal and international considerations and demonstrating how both men and women’s daily activities shaped and impacted on global politics, and how these were in turn highly dependent on gender identities.

Consequently, through feminism, aspects such as war that were perceived as male endeavors and which had resulted in some of the ways through which females contribute to and experience violence being considered peripheral and outside the scope of international relations considerations, have since entered and prominently feature in the international agenda today (Narain, 2014; Tickner and True, 2018). This is a significant contribution given that, according to Ruiz (2005), although rape and violence against women tends to increase during war, such occurrences would not feature in normal international relations discourses that largely focus on inter-state interactions that largely take states as the main actors. Therefore, feminist thought has made notable strides in challenging the subordination of women to men, the social and political construction of gender identities, and gendered inequality, and therefore, the homogenous conceptualization of women in international relations.

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In conclusion, feminism demonstrates and recognizes that women are essential actors in the social, political and economic landscapes. It is therefore valuable to seriously take into account their contributions and experiences in highlighting how international relations are based on and promote gendered notions regarding who experiences or does what, and why, in global politics and interactions.


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