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April 8, 2021Culture

Sherelle Ducksworth: Critical Theory and Precursors to Approaching Critical Race Theory

Part 2 of Sherelle Duckworth's contribution to our Critical Race Theory series.
Sherelle Ducksworth: Critical Theory and Precursors to Approaching Critical Race Theory
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In Part I, we walked through four precursors about sociological theory to consider before engaging Critical Race Theory (CRT). Those precursors included understanding that:

  1. Sociological theories are suggestions on how to see the world.
  2. Sociological theories show us what to look for in the world.
  3. Sociological theories morph into a multitude of ideas and assertions.
  4. Sociological theories are descriptive but are used with research orientations that aim at prescribing solutions.

Since CRT traces its lineage to critical theory, it will be helpful to grasp some tenets of critical theory that will help use draw conclusions on how to approach critical race theory.

1. Critical theory utilizes an oppressor/oppressed binary in its investigation and interpretation of the social world.

The roadmap for sociological analysis for critical theory is a fixed binary of oppressed versus oppressor. These two groups exist in conflict, tension, and struggle as the oppressed group seeks liberation and the oppressor group seeks to maintain the status quo and their social dominance. Critical theory challenges the notion that society is “fixed” in hopes of removing the traditional norms and ideologies that allow the oppressor group to maintain power and privilege.

2. Critical theory is rooted in a desire for activism and social change.

John Macionis defines critical sociology as, “and activist orientation that ties knowledge to action and seeks not just to understand the world as it exists but also to improve it.”[1] Vern Poythress defines critical sociology as research, “which endeavors to highlight the injustices and inequities in a society and to suggest or implement change.”[2] In accordance with Marx’s critical sociology, critical theory finds no real value in sociological observation that refuses to challenge the status quo. Instead, the consequence of social observation is activism and the end goal of critical theory is social transformation.[3]

3. Critical theory rejects objective social analysis.

Unlike other sociological research orientations such as positivist and interpretive sociology, critical theory rejects the idea that one can participate in sociological research objectively. Instead, researchers necessarily take their own agendas and their social background into their research. John Macionis, in his discussion on critical sociology writes, “In making value judgements about how society should be improved, critical sociology rejects Weber’s goal that researchers be value-free and emphasizes instead that they be social activists in pursuit of greater social equality.”[4]

4. Critical theory challenges hegemony in hopes of bringing equity and justice.

One of the goals of critical theory activism is to dismantle hegemony. Hegemony refers to the unjust dominance yielded by the oppressive ruling class that marginalizes the subordinate groups and binds them to an oppressive system.[5] For critical theorists, the purpose of sociological research includes resisting the dominant group and actively seeking social transformation for the sake of freedom, democracy, and equity.

Now that we have explored sociological theory and critical theory, what conclusions can we draw concerning how we engage CRT? CRT is the a theory stemming from both sociological theory and critical theory. Thus, it is important to have some insight into both theories before engaging CRT. In light of the precursors we have discussed before engaging CRT, here are my conclusions.

1. CRT can provide valid suggestions but can also propose rigid and fixed interpretations of the social world.

The binary of oppressor/oppressed is an interpretive deadlock that sets the interpretive agenda disallowing researchers to interpret social patterns through a lens other than oppressor/oppressed. If oppressor/oppressed is the fixed structure of the social world, we risk hindering our social observations to one paradigm and thereby missing other possible explanations for social patterns and phenomenon.

2. We can accept descriptions of the social world proposed by CRT while simultaneously rejecting suggested forms of activism and social change made by critical race theorists.

Because the nature of social theory involves description and critical theory involves an authoritative prescription of action, we can accept descriptions from CRT even if we decide to reject the call to social action. In other words, we can agree with ideas and concepts without taking up forms of activism that conflict with the Christian confession of faith. For example, as a sociologist I believe racism in society is expressed through micro aggressions but there are other sociological theories that I believe offer more adequate solutions than critical race theory.

3. Critical race theory includes a number of individuals and is an evolving discipline.

It is important that CRT is not perceived as a monolith, “As these writings demonstrate, there is no canonical set of doctrines or methodologies to which we all subscribe.”[6] It is also important to recognize that CRT continues to evolve. Both the diversity and constant evolution of CRT is a warning to Christians to use clarity and specificity when expressing his or her support for CRT. Those who are anti–CRT should be sure to present the nuance of the discipline and not choose the most extreme theorists as a representative of the discipline to discredit the movement.

To close this article, I want to offer Christians a few admonishments.

Be charitable in your dialogue. Don’t villainize those you disagree with. Be consistent in your application of common grace. Use sola scriptura accurately. And finally, love God and love people.

[1] John J. Macionis, Sociology, 15th Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2014), 22.

[2] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Sociology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011) 285.

[3] It should be noted that critical sociology is a research orientation utilized by critical theorist.

[4] John J. Macionis, Sociology, 15th Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2014), 41.

[5] Dino Franco Felluga, Critical Theory: The Key Concepts (New York: Routledge, 2015), Introduction, Xxiii.

[6] Kimberele Crenshaw et al., eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: The New Press, 1995), Introduction, xiii.

Further Sources:

Delgado, Richard and Harris, Angela. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Denzin, Norman K., ed. The Values of Social Science. United States: Aldine. 1970.

Gilbert, Nigel, ed. Researching Social Life. California: New Sage, 1993.

Kendall, Diana. Social Problems in a Diverse Society. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Denzin, Norman K., ed. The Values of Social Science. United States: Aldine. 1970.

Royce, Edward. Classical Social Theory and Modern Society: Marx, Durkheim, Weber. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

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