Hello my lovely little lemon drops. We’ve got a big fish to fry today.
Today we’re gonna look at the critical tradition, under which communication is viewed as a reflective challenge of unjust discourse. Critical scholars seek to challenge hegemonic ideas, which are those which allow dominant classes to maintain social order.
The concept of hegemony deals with how the ruling class in a given society keeps their power – not by brute force or violence, but by consent of the oppressed who are often unknowingly made to buy into the ideas of the ruling class which are marketed as ‘common sense’.
Critical scholars then aim to challenge ideas that language promotes power imbalance and the role of mass media in desensitising the public to repression. There ultimate goal is to dismantle hegemonic ideas, and present other possible ways of doing things.
Their focus in the field of communication strives to achieve this goal. The critical tradition proffers a humanistic approach to theory by attempting also to dispel blind reliance on the scientific method and empirical findings.
Critical scholars would much rather pore over texts to determine how the promotion of certain ideologies allows those who hold the power to keep it and those who don’t to have their interests subverted.
Their view is that communication is not separated from the overall system of oppression, but rather that messages reinforce oppression in society.
A critical scholar would seek to find out, for example, how real-world messages reinforce a certain mindset – like the inferiority of the black race – by examining discourse and texts to determine how the mindset came about in the first place, and establishing how mass media helps to urge the cycle onward by making people believe that this is how the world is in fact meant to be.
Gathering this data would then allow him to present suitable alternatives to the existing mindset. Thus by identifying the flaws within the system, he can offer viable alternatives which can affect social changes – which is exactly what he set out to do.
The critical tradition is a very black-and-white tradition, essentially a no-nonsense approach in which scholars ruminate on unjust communicative behaviours, and attempt to right the wrongs within in order to affect changes which at the very least produce more “just” discourse.
We’ve seen quite a few variations of critical theory, whether we are aware of it or not.
The original branch of critical theory began with Karl Marx and Marxism. Marx argued that in a capitalist system where production was driven by the ability to profit, the working class was oppressed. He reasoned that the situation would only change if the working class should rise up against the ruling class.
Marxist Critical Theory appealed to the fact that the language of the bourgeoisie is such that it becomes difficult for the proletariat to understand the full extent of their situation, and thus information illiteracy leads them to comply with the dominant mindset. Consequently, Marxist critical theory works on new forms of language which expose the dominant ideology for what it truly is in the hopes of sensitising people to the truth of their situation.
The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory is a neo-Marxist theory, and some of its core issues involve the critique of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived belief systems of society. Its grouse was that when the working class tried and failed to bring about the changes Marx discussed, the proletariat abandoned their belief in change. Still, it is often regarded as having elitist tendencies.
Postmodernism originated in the 1970’s, and is defined as the philosophical proposal that reality is ultimately inaccessible by human investigation, that knowledge is a social construction, that truth-claims are political power plays, and that the meaning of words is to be determined by readers not authors.
Cultural studies (1984), which has its origins in Birmingham, has interests in dominant ideologies in culture, and focuses on affecting social change from within the culture itself. As a result, [often marginalised] issues like those of race, gender, age and sexuality come into play, and distinguishes cultural studies as populist in orientation.
Post-structuralism rejects modern interests in scientific concepts like universal truths and narratives, methods and meanings by which to classify the world and in general universal meaning determined under structuralist constraint. Post-structuralism seeks out differences, and lobbies for a more historical, social approach to understanding the nature of the world and the human being.
Postcolonialist theory is hardly new to anyone. It studies all cultures affected by imperialist rule, from colonisation to present. It posits that colonialism creates ‘othering’ – a way of stratifying peoples based on particular criteria (especially non-white peoples). It focuses on ascertaining the postcolonial creation of cultural identity; the use and misuse of knowledge about colonised peoples; and responses to colonial oppression.
Finally, Feminist studies came out of a necessity to advocate for women’s rights, and further to end all forms of oppression. Feminist students seek to understand ways that women and other marginalised groups are [unfairly] disallowed from full participation in the public sphere.
To sum it all up – or as I often say, to “CliffNotes” it all – the critical tradition is all about looking at the fallacies in messages and how they end in unjust discourse; then reevaluating those messages and recreating them in such a way that communicators are vessels for just discourse.
Cyndi, the Traditionalist
(ever reflective and introspective)