At this point you have learned about four different theoretical paradigms we use to understand communication. One problem with these approaches is they often lack an explicit critique of the status quo of communication. Put another way, they serve as a general approach to understand communication norms rather than challenge them. We all realize that there are communication realities in the world that are hurtful and oppressive to particular people, and that there are people in the world that use communication to serve their own needs and interests. How do we bring these communicative practices to light and work to change communication practices that are hurtful?
Communication Theory Now
Byron Hurt is a modern theorist who uses film to critique how sexism impacts both men and women in our society. His cutting-edge film “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” looks at the Hip-Hop industry from a critical perspective, focusing on how it enables sexism against women while keeping men in narrowly defined gendered roles.
The Need for Critical Theories
The Critical Theories Paradigm helps us understand how communication is used to oppress, and provides ways to foster positive social change (Foss & Foss; Fay). Critical Theories challenge the status quo of communication contexts, looking for alternatives to those forms of oppressive communication. These theories differ from other theoretical approaches because they seek praxis as the overarching goal. Praxis is the combination of theory and action. Rather than simply seeking to understand power structures, critical theories actively seek to change them in positive ways. Easily identifiable examples of critical approaches are Marxism, postmodernism, and feminism. These critical theories expose and challenge the communication of dominant social, economic, and political structures. Areas of inquiry include language, social relationships, organizational structures, politics, economics, media, cultural ideologies, interpersonal relationships, labor, and other social movements.
Cultural Studies focus on understanding the real-life experiences of people, examining communication contexts for hidden power structures, and accomplishing positive social change as a result (Dines and Humez; Kellner). According to Kellner, cultural studies involves three interconnected elements necessary for understanding, evaluating and challenging the power dynamics embedded in communication—political economy, textual analysis, and audience reception.
- Political economy focuses on the macro level of communication. Specifically, this part of cultural studies looks at the way media as text are situated in a given cultural context, and the political and economic realities of the cultural context. In the U.S., we would note that the political economy is one marked with gender, racial, and class inequities.
- Textual analysis involves the process of deconstructing and analyzing elements of a media text. If you wanted to look at a magazine with a critical eye, you would pay attention to the visual elements (the pictures in the ads; the celebrity photos, and any other drawings, cartoons or illustrations), the verbal messages (the text of the ads, the copy, captions that accompany the photographs), and the relationship between the advertisements and the copy. For example, is there an ad for Clinique eye shadow next to an article on the “hot new beauty tips for fall?” You would also want to pay attention to the representation of gender, race, and class identities as well. Are there any differences or similarities between the portrayal of white women and women of color? What sort of class identity is being offered as the one to emulate?
- Audience reception asks us to consider the role of the text for the audience that consumes it. You might want to learn why people read particular magazines—what purpose does it fill, what is the social function of this text?
Origins of Critical Theories in Communication
Marxism is one of the earliest origins of critical theory. In addition, postmodernism, feminism, and postcolonialism have greatly influenced how critical theories have grown and expanded to challenge a greater number of social power structures. While each of these approaches examines a different area of oppression, all are critical approaches to enact great social changes, not only in western societies, but in cultures worldwide.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Karl Marx’s ideas challenged the status quo of newly emerging industrial societies. As societies moved from agrarian-based economies to ones based in industrial manufacturing, there became an increasing division between the rich and the poor — much like the income inequality talked about so much today. Marx, in two of his most well-known works, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, argued that working class laborers were being oppressed by those in power, specifically the owners of manufacturing plants.
In any discussion of Postmodernism, another critical theoretical perspective, the difficulty of defining the term is invariably part of the discussion. Modern refers to just now (from modo in Latin) and post means after. Thus, this term translates into “after just now”—an idea that can be difficult to wrap our heads around. How do you, for example, point to or mark the period after just now? (Covino & Jolliffe, 76). In discussing the postmodern condition, Lyotard explained the relationship between those who have and don’t have social power: “The [decision makers] allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on optimizing the system’s performance—efficiency” (27).
A third major influence on the development of the Critical Theories Paradigm comes from feminist theories. Feminist theories explore power structures that create and recreate gendered differentiations in societies (Foss & Foss; Dervin; MacKinnon). Critical feminist theories contend that gender relations are often oppressive to both men and women, and that they support an institution based on patriarchal values. Thus, critical feminist theories challenge dominant assumptions and practices of gender in ways that foster more equal and egalitarian forms of communication and social structures in society.
When discussing feminism and feminist theories we refer to a set of multiple and diverse theories. Feminist theories include a wide range of philosophical arguments, economic structures, and political viewpoints. Some of these include Marxist feminism, which focuses on the division of labor as a source of gender inequality, and liberal feminism, which asserts that men and women should have equal status in the culture—such as voting rights, educational and professional opportunities, and equal pay. Eco-feminism recognizes that all parts of the universe are interconnected and that oppression of women and other minorities is analogous to the oppression of the natural environment such as in the cutting down of natural forests to meet consumer demands for paper goods, or the killing of animals for the eating of meat.
Critical Theories in Action
Whether we listen to music on our phones, watch TV, go to the movies, or read a magazine, most of us consume media. Have you ever stopped to think about who puts together those messages? Have you wondered what their goals might be and why they want to send the messages they do? One way we can use critical theories is to examine who owns what media to determine what they are trying to accomplish (Croteau & Hoynes). For example, why does General Electric want to own companies like RCA and NBC? Why does a company like Seagram’s want to buy MCA (Universal Studios) and Polygram records? What world-views are these companies creating in the media they produce? These are all questions for which we might consider using theories from the Critical Theories Paradigm. Did you know that in 1983 50 corporations controlled most of the U.S. media (papers, television, movies, magazines,etc.) and that by 2004 that number has dropped down to five corporations (Bagdikian)? Using Critical Theories Paradigm, we can begin to examine the messages that so few companies are constructing and their impacts on how we understand the world around us as shaped through these messages.
Other examples from the critical paradigm include works that examine gender, consumerism, advertising, and television. In her work, Who(se) Am I? The Identity and Image of Women in Hip-Hop, Perry examines the potential danger and damage to African-American women through their objectification in Hip-Hop videos. Carole A. Stabile examines the labor and marketing practices of Nike in her article, Nike, Social Responsibility, and the Hidden Abode of Production. Clint C. Wilson II and Felix Gutierrez discuss the portrayal of people of color in advertising in their article, Advertising and People of Color, while Jackson Katz explores mask of masculinity with his film, Tough Guise 2: The Ongoing Crisis of Violent Masculinity. We use critical theories to reveal a vast range of possible ideological structures that create and foster dominant world-views, and to challenge and change those ideologies that oppress others.
A significant strength of the Critical Theories Paradigm is that it combines theory and practice, seeking to create actual change from theoretical development. Rather than seeking prediction and control, or explanation and understanding, critical theories seek positive social change. The intent behind these theoretical perspectives is to help empower those whose world-views and ideological perspectives have not found equality in social contexts. At their best, critical theories have the potential to enact large-scale social change for both large and small groups of people.
A potential weakness of critical theories is their dependence on social values. While empirical laws theories seek an objective reality, critical theories highlight subjective values that guide communication behaviors. When values conflict the question of, “whose values are better?” emerges. Because values are subjective, answering this question is often filled with much conflict and debate. The example of gay marriage highlights a current debate taking place over ideological values. How do we define marriage? And, whose definition is best?