AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

9. Critical Theory and Educational Technology

9.1 Introduction
9.2 Foundations of Critical Theory
9.3 Habermas's Epistemology
9.4 Critical Theory and Technolgy
9.5 Critical Theory and Education
9.6 Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.7 Topics in Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.8 Problems with Critical Theories of Education
9.9 Problems with Critical Theories of Educational Technology
9.10 Summary
9.11 Being Critical Educational Technologists
9.12 Why Appropriate Critical Theory?
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The Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) was founded in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany. Its Journal of the Institute for Social Research published Horkheimer's "Traditional and Critical Theory" in 1937, which may be taken as the formal birth date of the institute's school of critical theory. Its most prominent early members included Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (Ingram & SimonIngram, 1991). McLaren (1994a) suggests that Michael Apple, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Maxine Greene, Bell Hooks, and Jonathan Kozol, among others, represent current critical theorists:

Ingram and Simon-Ingram (1991) state that early critical theory has been variously characterized as a radical social theory (or sociology), a sophisticated form of cultural criticism combining Freudian and Marxist ideas, and a utopian style of philosophical speculation deeply rooted in Jewish and German idealism. For their own part, critical theorists saw themselves as responding to the historical events of the day. The changing composition and direction of the European labor movement and the evolution of Soviet communism and Western capitalism attracted their attention initially. They later expanded their focus to include the decline of patriarchy in the nuclear family; the psychosocial dynamics underlying authoritarian, anti-Semitic and fascist tendencies; and the rising potential for totalitarian mind control in the mass production and consumption of "culture" (p. xix).

Carr and Kemmis (1986) point out that the early critical theorists also saw positive science being applied indiscriminantly:

Science had become an ideology, a culturally produced and socially supported, unexamined way of seeing the world which shapes and guides social action. As such, science's role had become one of legitimating social action by providing "objective fact" to justify courses of action. Questions of values underlying these courses of action were believed to be beyond the scope of science and were thus left unexamined. Scientific results merely distinguished more effective courses of action from less effective ones and explained how outcomes occurred--not whether they should be allowed to occur. Far from being a relentless inquiry into the nature and conduct of social life, science was in danger of taking forms of social life for granted and reflecting only on "technical" issues (p. 132).

In the face of an historical division of rational inquiry either into scientific, fact-based analysis or into the existential, poetic, religious nature of existence,

the intellectual project of critical theory thus required recovering from early philosophy the elements of social thought which uniquely concerned the values, judgments, and interests of humankind, and integrating them into a framework of thought which could provide a new and justifiable approach to social science (Carr & Kenunis, 1986, p. 132).

So, the critical theorists were concerned not only with disclaiming rationality, science, and the technical altogether but rather with returning them to balance with other aspects of life, such as moral perspectives. The early critique of capitalism, hinted at above, is related to Marxist theory. This relationship can sometimes evoke negative reactions in those unfamiliar with critical theory. However, most early critical theorists were forced to analyze the Marxist orientation and move away from it. Giroux's (1983b) analysis helps us to understand this history:

It is particularly in the rejection of certain doctrinal Marxist assumptions, developed under the historical shadow of totalitarianism and the rise of the consumer society in the West, that Horkheimer, Adomo, and Marcuse attempted to construct a more sufficient basis for social theory and political action. Certainly such a basis was not to be found in standard Marxist assumptions such as: the notion of historical inevitability; the primacy of the mode of production in the shaping of history; and the notion that class struggle as well as the mechanisms of domination take place primarily within the confines of the labour process ... the focus of the Frankfurt School's research downplayed the area of political economy and emphasized instead the issue of how subjectivity was constituted, as well as the issue of how the spheres of culture and everyday life represented a new terrain of domination (p. 10).

Despite this move away from Marxism, capitalism remains an important issue for many critical theorists. Habermas, for example, believes that capitalist societies oppose democracy, partly by discouraging rational communication and encouraging destructive beliefs in "bourgeois ideologies revolving around competitive achievement, possessive individualism, familial privatism, and consumerism" (Ingram & Simon-Ingram, 1991, p. xxxii). Within the field of education, too, analysis of capitalism occupies critical theorists (e.g., Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Feenberg, 1991; Greene, 1993; Liston, 1988). We bear McLaren (1994b): "Situated beyond the reach of ethically convincing forms of accountability, capitalism has dissolved the meaning of democracy into glossy aphorisms one finds in election campaign sound bites or a bargain basement sales [sic] in suburban shopping malls" (p. 192).

Critical theorists also suggest that modem social crises, say in education or government, are related to the intrusion of overly rational (scientific, analytical, technological), instrumental, means-ends philosophies that detract from reflection on our ultimate ends--ends related to good and bad, right and wrong. Over time, we have largely abandoned moral perspectives. Of course, critical theorists do not always agree with one another about specifics in the moral realm. Marcuse argues for a hedonism, where true "pleasures" are those that allow for the complete development of human intellectual and sensual faculties. On the other hand, Habermas (1983/1990) says that the best way to uncover universal moral principles is via rational argumentation, rational discourse.

Several methodologies are associated with the work of critical theorists (Popkewitz, 1990). Of, these, the main method is "immanent critique, which proceeds through forcing existing views to their systematic conclusions, bringing them face to face with their incompleteness and contradictions, and, ultimately, with the social conditions of their existence" (Young, 1990, p. 18). To this end, strands of methods from disciplines such as psychology, economics, history, sociology, and philosophy have informed the research of critical theory. Horkheimer's interdisciplinary approach combined the objective, explanatory methods of traditional theory (science) with empathetic, subjective, and historical approaches. Marcuse used psychiatric theory to argue that under the imperative of capitalist production, societies have become less free and less happy. Habermas argues for the method of communicative action, where "rational justification must be conceived as a dialogical process of reaching agreement on contested statements" (Ingram & Simon-Ingram, 1991, p. xxvii).

Action research is a commonly used method which Grundy (1987) describes as social research aiming to help participants via improvement and involvement. Improvement often means that material contexts need to be bettered. Involvement means "it is always the knowledge generated from within the action research group which is to be regarded as the authentic and legitimate basis for action, not knowledge from 'outside"' (Grundy, 1987, p. 143). The process of action research is to spiral through action and reflection, planning and observation. Reflection and planning take place via discourse; action and observation are carried on via practice. Grundy points out that the underlying justifications for action research are "the interrelatedness of truth, justice, and freedom" (p. 144).

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