What is the deal with Critical Theory, and why should I care?

This is a part of a series called That’s a good question designed to provide answers to questions I commonly receive from interested individuals. I do not claim to have all the answers, nor do I attempt to provide concrete answers to every question. However, I do hope to provide opportunities to rethink existing questions.

Critical Theory, specifically Critical Race Theory (CRT) has drawn quite a bit of attention over the past several months. Most recently the presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries released a statement stating that Critical Race Theory is incompatible with a Biblical worldview. Moreover, the statement argued that all Critical Theories are incompatible with a Biblical worldview. This presents a problem for those of us who work alongside disabled individuals. 

Historically, the approach to disability, particularly in the West, has been a Medical Model. The Medical Model presents disability as something specific to an individual and completely explained through physiological difference. This approach argues that any challenges the disabled individual experiences are explained completely by this physiological difference(s). Moreover, this model argues that experts (e.g. those without disability labels) are best situated to remedy, solve, ameliorate, or fix the problem. 

Over time, this model was seen as insufficient to explain the reality of disabled individuals. In response the Social Model of disability was developed. Michael Oliver’s 1986 The Politics of Disablement became an essential text for understanding this model. The social model argues that physiological difference does not explain the reality of disabled individuals. Rather, institutions, environmental factors, cultural norms, attitudinal barriers, political structures, and organizational policies are far more responsible for the lived reality of disabled individuals and do a better job of profering a legitimate explanation for the challenges that disabled individuals experience.

What does this have to do with Critical Theory? Critical Theory, by and large, examines how those same collective forces (institutions, policies, norms, etc.) result in the lack of equity experienced by marginalized or maligned groups. The Social Model and Disability Studies as a whole are deeply intertwined with Critical Theory and build from previous critical theories related to race, sexuality, and gender.

While I may not always agree with the conclusions espoused by those who work within a Critical Framework, I recognize the usefulness of a critical approach. (In all fairness, my doctoral studies were firmly grounded in critical disability theory). Critical Theory is a tool. It is a way of looking at structural inequality in order to explain and predict. Critical Theory (similar to any analytical theory) is not designed to espouse a solution. Rather it highlights a problem. While many critical theorists do offer solutions based within a critical worldview, these typically result in a Marxist class-struggle based solution.

While I do not promote a Marxist worldview, I do know that issues of disability are more than simply housed within an individual’s physiology. I know that my own daughter experiences disability differently in different structural environments. Why? Well, critical disability explains much of that difference based on policies and associated barriers. However, the solution to this oppression or inequality is not, for us, based in Marxist ideology.  It is based in a Biblical understanding of Justice that recognizes the sovereignty of God, the image of God in our fellow human, and refuses to make a false idol out of self, social acceptance, the state, or any other created thing. [ from Thaddeaus Williams’ Confronting Justice Without Compromising Truth (Zondervan, 2020)]

Check out this article by Robert Vischer for a little more on Critical Theory.


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