Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 7.
An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that “objectivity” is desirable, or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed, we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. This term captures the understanding that all content and all means of knowledge are connected to social context.
In understanding knowledge as socially constructed, critical educators guide students along at least three dimensions:
- In critical analysis of knowledge claims that are presented as neutral, universal, and “objective,” for example, Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America
- In critical self-reflection about their own social perspective and subjectivity, for example how the Columbus myth and the teacher’s racial identity influence what s/he teaches about the history of North America
- In developing the skills with which to see, analyze, and challenge ideological domination, for example, rewriting existing school lesson plans or curricula to reflect the complexities of the myth of discovery and the investments in this myth
In these ways educators who teach from a critical perspective guide their students in an examination of the relationship between their frames of reference and the knowledge they accept and reproduce.
New Discourses Commentary
To be “critical” in the Social Justice sense is to be aware of and resist (systemic) power and disrupt established systems and ways of thinking (see also, critical consciousness). This is understood as a form of activism to end systemic oppression by criticizing all systems and undermining them (see also, subvert, deconstruct, disrupt, dismantle, and revolution). It is not the same “critical” as we encounter in “critical thinking” and, in fact, means something more specific (see above).
Though its ultimate origins may be pinnable to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, the critical approach ultimately draws in the main from Karl Marx. Marx saw criticism of the system itself as the vital first step in remaking the world, saying, “I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Therefore, criticism in the sense employed by critical theories (see also, neo-Marxism, post-Marxism, Marxian, and Theory), thus Social Justice, is destructive rather than constructive, and its means and ends are highly interpretive and tend to be ambiguous, respectively. It is more interested in problematizing—that is, finding ways in which the system is imperfect and making noise about them, reasonably or not—than it is in any other identifiable activity, especially building something constructive.
The ambiguity of objective in critical methods (unless one counts poorly informed, cynical, and pessimistic complaining, general discontent, and an ill-defined and ongoing social revolution as an objective) only intensified under the postmodernists and, subsequently, the Social Justice scholarship of today, which draws on postmodernism to a greater extent than Marxism (see also, Foucauldian and Derridean). Whereas the Marxists saw knowledge as something that could be arrived at as a result of the critical process, the postmodernists and the Social Justice scholars view knowledge as plural and relational, a gnostic resident of lived experience. Truth is not an aim of a critical method, especially postmodern critical methods, as there are believed to be many co-equal truths, each an artifact of the culture that produces it (see also, knowledge(s), ways of knowing, and cultural relativism). The “truths” critical Social Justice advocates are most interested in are those understood as belonging to oppressed and marginalized people, whose truths have been neglected, excluded, or dominated (see also, hegemony and positivism).
Consequently, “critical” approaches seek to interpret texts and situations through the lens of power dynamics and uncover the inherent oppression within the system (especially the “systems” of liberalism, science, and meritocracy). The existence of this systemic oppression they take to be an axiomatic given: oppression is considered to always be present even if it is not apparent, and Theoretical interpretations that reveal it are accepted as important and authoritative. This, of note, is not the same as true.
Critical approaches frequently look like nitpicking in order to find something to take offense at (see also, close reading and discourse analysis). They look like reading race and gender and other identity markers into everything even if they do not seem relevant, because it is believed that they are always present and always relevant. As mentioned, these methods tend to be highly interpretive, and they often leave no right way to do anything—and that’s rather the point. It is, after all, the ruthless criticism of everything that exists (whether one understands the involved details, parameters, limitations, or tradeoffs or not).
Some people think that the term “critical” shouldn’t be applied to critical theories (or Critical Theory, or “Critical Social Justice,” as Social Justice is sometimes called) because they are not welcoming of criticism. This misunderstands the idea of “critical” as a formal term. It is also a way that the term “critical theory” is something of a Trojan horse term. It also has the effect of concentrating Theory rather than correcting where it goes wrong.
Critical theories are, in fact, endlessly critical of themselves, as their supporters will tell you at every opportunity. In the formal sense, “critical” means looking for the underexamined, problematic power dynamics in any system, including itself, as they are defined by Theory. That is, Theory is endlessly interested in how it is problematic in the ways that Theory defines problematics. As such, Theory is not critical (in any sense, but especially the common-parlance sense) of the underlying assumptions of Theory about power dynamics because it does not doubt these but is instead critical of its own sufficiency in rooting out its own hidden biases that allegedly support those power dynamics. Again, these biases are the ones defined by Theory, not necessarily the ones it should actually be examining (critically, in any sense of the word).
Bias; Close reading; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural relativism; Deconstruction; Derridean; Discourse analysis; Dismantle; Disrupt; Exclusion; Foucauldian; Gender; Hegemony; Identity; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Marginalized; Marxian; Marxism; Meritocracy; Neo-Marxism; Objectivity; Oppression; Position; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Power (systemic); Problematic; Problematize; Race; Revolution; Science; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Strategic resistance; Subjectivity; System, the; Theory; Truth; Value-free; Ways of knowing
Critical scholarship is less an approach and more an invitation; it is a way of thinking about research as a form of resistance. While resistance is usually associated with the politics of the day, with tangible forms of oppression or with nuanced forms of manipulation, we believe that we must balance the production of the orthodoxy with resistance to system-preserving truths. And so we invite you to submit your scholarship that is critical not in its conclusions but in its starting points: Is attachment really the framework in which we must see the entire life form of youth? Is trauma a universal concept? Does resilience explain something in particular or is it a way of identifying the economic, social, and cultural processes that re-produce a colonial, white, heterosexist, ableist social order? How do binary constructs of ways of being and of living impact on the full diversity of humanity? Are we either male or female? Are we racialized or white? Are we religious or atheist? Are we rich or poor? Are we perpetrator or victim?
Critical scholarship can perhaps be characterized in another way. It is a way of approaching knowledge that is inherently not certain, always fluid, rooted in the lived experiences of people with multiplicity of life-contexts and informed by dialogue, relationship, and connection with those who have a stake in the knowledge being generated. Critical research is not out to create truth; it aims to consider the moment and looks forward to a way of seeing that moment in ways we could not have imagined. Finally, it invites into the research process an active identification of and engagement with power, with the social systems and structures, ideologies and paradigms that uphold the status quo.
Revision date: 7/8/20