Critical Theory: Social System Requirements Versus Human Needs

Is there an alternative to this high priority on the maintenance of existing institutional structures for the sake of social order? For critical theorists, social systems of all types should be evaluated in terms of how they affect individuals’ well-being, as opposed to how well they maintain their particular structures or survive. In any case, the survival of particular structures in a society should never be seen as equivalent to the survival or well-being of the individual members of the society’s population. The overall goal of critical theory is to raise our consciousness of how existing structures and systems tend to subordinate and repress large segments of the population, molding and shaping people’s consciousness and regulating their behavior for the sake of their own maintenance. For critical theorists the overriding priority should be the welfare of people and their development to their full potential as human beings, not the maintenance of particular structures as an end in itself. This often requires major social transformations. The goal of such transformations should be to advance human rights, protect human freedom, and promote the highest possible level of human fulfillment. The critical theorists and perspectives to be reviewed in this chapter are as follows:

  • C. Wright Mills’ critical description of the American power structure and “mass society”—Mills’ perspective, developed in the middle part of the twentieth century, provided a rebuttal to the then-dominant perspective of functionalism in analyzing American society.

  • Structural Marxist perspectives as represented by Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, and Louis Althusser—Before Marx became a key figure for American sociologists, these European Marxists focused their analyses on how capitalism is reinforced through the interdependent and mutually reinforcing institutional structures that shape the overall culture through which individuals’ consciousness is formed.

  • Development of American critical theory, particularly as represented by Frankfurt School theorists Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—This humanistic neo-Marxist or “new left” perspective emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the context of the protest movements targeting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, and other social problems, and its development helped contribute to the decline of functionalism.

  • Jürgen Habermas’s critical theory focus on distorted versus open communication— Jürgen Habermas, one of the Frankfurt School’s younger members, focused on how people’s everyday lifeworlds at the micro level are dominated by the impersonal controls of macro-level systems.

  • Michel Foucault’s “post-structural” perspective on how professional knowledge and expertise reinforce structures of power and domination—Although Foucault is sometimes regarded as a postmodern theorist, his perspective clearly offers a critical analysis of how systems of knowledge are reflected in forms of discourse that underlie the implicitly accepted differential distribution of power in society.


Open Communication Mutual Understanding Professional Knowledge Critical Theory Political Structure 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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