Post- Positivist Approach: Critical Theory

Nada Usama Malkani
2019 / 4 / 8

Paradigm as a worldview which constitutes our systematic knowledge has become in the core position in social sciences since Thomas Kuhn published “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962. A paradigm shift was identified by Kuhn to understand changes in basic foundations and experimental practices in natural sciences. This concept has been critical in the discipline of social sciences. The shifting from positivism to post-positivism means changing the methodological standpoints. In this paper, I argue that critical theory was born from the womb of post-positivist paradigm in social sciences. Later, it has become an independent paradigm. I am engaged in identifying the characteristics and the foundations of critical researches in social sciences. The major contribution of critical theory in social sciences is the emancipative ontology that neither observes the reality “out there” (post-positivism), nor it only supposes the socially constructed reality, rather it challenges and seeks to transform the social reality. This ontological position requires a corresponding epistemology, methodology, and methods applied by the critical researchers.
Key concepts: post-positivism, paradigm, critical theory, ontology, epistemology, methodology, social emancipation.
It has been argued that what makes social sciences “scientific” is methodology not the subject matter. In other words, systematic analysis of the social phenomena gives the researchers’ knowledge its scientific nature. In this sense, astrology, for example, is unscientific. The reason is not because of its subject, but rather because the methodology that adopted by astrologists is unscientific. Due to the significance of methodology in making our understanding of the social world scientific, methodological positions have been important in the debate among social scientists.
There would be no systematic research without being aware of methodology. What distinguishes one approach from another is its methodology. Post-positivism is a shifting paradigm not because it studies different subjects, but it is so because of its different methodology. I suggest that the starting point in understanding various paradigms of social sciences is to look into its methodological point. Besides, methodology cannot be separated from how the researcher looks at the nature of their subject matter “ontology”. It is also connected to how the scholar decides what kinds of knowledge they adopt to understand the subject “epistemology”. Accordingly, ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods shape the paradigm in social sciences. I also analyze post-positivism as a reaction to dualist ontology, to a context-free analysis (epistemology), and to empiricism (methodology). Further, critical theory is a paradigm that was born from the womb of post-positivism, but it has constituted a different approach (critical paradigm), representing a radical shift on the level on ontology from the ontology of being (unchanging reality) to the ontology of becoming (challenging, changing, and transforming the existing reality).
In the first part, I discuss the methodological position of post-positivism and its emphasis on the interaction between the researcher and the social subject under the investigation. In the second part, I explain the foundations of critical research and examine what “critical” means when it is ascribed to the research. I also clarify briefly the difference between Marxism and critical theory. The conclusion summarizes my papers’ arguments.

Post-Positivism Paradigm
A paradigm in social science is a set of basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of the social world and the position of individuals in it. These assumptions represent a worldview that defines four correlated components: ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods.
Ontology derives from the Greek word “onto” (meaning, being, becoming) “logos” (science). So, ontology means: the science of being´-or-becoming. Identifying the subject of this science whether it is the study of being´-or-becoming refers to two Greek traditions: Heraclitus (c.535–c.475bc), who emphasized on a changing world and Parmenides (c.515–c.445bc), who placed a different emphasis on an unchanging reality. The first is called ontology of becoming and the second is conceptualized as the ontology of being. Ontological question of social sciences is what is out there that can be known. In this sense, ontology is the study of being and what shapes reality. Researchers have to take a position of how things really are and how they really work.
Post-positivism is a rejection of realist ontology adopted by positivism. It holds a critical realism´-or-relativist ontology. Realism suggests an independent existence of the reality. In this way, reality exists “out there”, outside of the mind of the observer. Relativism critiques this ontological position, confirming that the social world is not similar to the physical world. Truth is not absolute but provisional and its interpretation differs from person to person. As a result, there is no single reality but multi-realities. Researchers in the discipline of social sciences can be influenced by the object they observe. Moreover, post- positivists argue that the “discovered” truth is itself our belief. Therefore, they replace the idea of “discovered knowledge” with “constructed knowledge”. In other words, post-positivists refuse that knowledge is a value-free and a context free. They adopt “subjective epistemology” whereas positivist’s epistemology is an objective epistemology.
In general, epistemology means the theory of knowledge: origin, validity, nature,-limit-s of knowledge. It derives from the Greek, “episteme y” (philosophy´-or-theory) logos (science). It means theory´-or-science of knowledge. Objective epistemology adopted by positivism derives from its realist ontology. It means that the observer needs to stay as far away from the subject matter as they can. Doing so, they can obtain an objective stance towards knowledge. Post-positivism argues that “A tree is not a tree without someone to call it a tree.” Truth and meaning are created and constructed not discovered. It claims that without consciousness the world is meaningless. On the one hand, the people’s nature and their actions in social, political, and cultural life are meaningful. On the other hand, the construction of meaning takes place in a certain context. By supposing the social world is culturally and socially constructed, interpretivism and constructionism are under the label of post-positivism.
Refusing dualism´-or-dichotomy of (subject/object) and adopting subjective epistemology mean that post-positivists draw different strategies (methodology) to gain knowledge. Methodology is the plan of research action. It is concerned with why, what, from where, when and how data is collected and analyzed. Post-positivist methodology is “understanding the social existence from the people’s perspectives and investigating the historical, social, and cultural contexts”. Interpretivists and constructivists refuse rigorous empirical methodology of positivists. Positivism’s methodology is experimental and manipulative. As in the natural sciences, there are regularities governing the observed phenomenon which can be studied by empirical inquiry. Positivists seek to make generalizations by organizing regularities into casual relations (variables) to make a statement (hypothesis) that can be tested empirically (verification). They deal with facts not with values. Moreover, behaviorists argue that the truth of such values as democracy, equality, and freedom cannot be proven scientifically, and therefore should not be a part of political science research. Post-positivists reject this methodology. They assert upon the-limit-s of mechanical laws. They don’t focus on general laws, but on Max Weber’s methodology which is interested in the motivations that must be placed within a cultural perspective. Max Weber argues that without the investigator’s evaluative ideas, there would be no principle of selection of subject matter and no meaningful knowledge of the concrete reality.”
On the light of the interactive methodology, post-positivists such as interpretivists and constructivists adopt qualitative tactics to understand how people are creative and construct their social life and to interpret the interpretations of people. They conduct case studies (observation, personal interviews), phenomenological studies (in-depth interviews), and ethnography (participant observation, unstructured interviews). Donatella Della Porta and Michael Keating point out that because post-positivists assume imperfect and relative knowledge, they are closer to modern scientific approaches, which accept a degree of uncertainty.
To sum up, positivist paradigm applies the same scientific rigor that the natural sciences use and post-positivist paradigm claims that natural laws have-limit-ations. These stances could be understood by “subject-objective dichotomy”. This argument simply could be explained by imagining a “fishbowl” as the ontological subject matter. The first trend tends to not intervene in events. In other words, the researchers need to stay as far away from the subject matter, to analyze, and to describe the fishbowl without enter it. The second trend refuses this kind of analysis, preferring to go deeply into the fishbowl in order to interact with fishes and to know how fish live in their bowl “context”.
Where is a critical research located in the post-positivist paradigm? What did critical theory bring about for the social inquiry and to the life of people? Where is the location of critical theorists in the imagined “fishbowl”?
Critical theory and Critical Researches
Critical theory was born as part of the post-positivist paradigm and then took a radical path of ontology- that is Heraclitus’s ontology “ontology of becoming”. Reality in the eyes of critical researches is not only in constant changing-;- rather the existing social reality is itself under question, critique, and condemnation. This ontology seeks to emancipate people by changing their positions in societies. It is thus an emancipative ontology. Both positivism and major approaches of post-positivists believe in the idea that reality exists somewhere. According to positivists, reality is “out-there” waiting to be discovered. In contrast to positivists, post-positivism argues that reality is shaped not discovered. Critical theory comes to criticize the existing reality and to question how it has been shaped historically in a specific context.
The roots of critical theory traced back to the Frankfort School in Germany (The Institute of Social Research) which emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After Nazism had taken over the power, scholars of this institution travelled to the USA. The "Frankfurt School" thus refers to a group of German-American theorists. They developed a powerful analysis of the changes in Western capitalist societies that occurred since the classical theory of Marx. Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcus, and Erich Fromm put the first elements of the Frankfort School’s critical label by criticizing oppression under the western culture.
Recent critical social researches conducted in 1970s during the rise of feminism and black movements. These researches sought to examine the oppressive structures based on race and gender inequalities. Feminists, postcolonial theorist, critical race theorists, and critical media analysts, critical multiculturalism are under the label of critical approach in the social sciences and they use multi-disciplinary understanding of oppression: economy, history, culture, and psychology.

What does “critical” mean when it is ascribed to theory?
When “critical” is ascribed to theory, it means that the theory’s task is not describing ´-or-analyzing reality “positivism”. Critical theory doesn’t find it is enough to interpret the context and the people’s perspectives to their social and cultural world “interpretivism”. Fred Rush argues that “critical” means that critical theory criticizes the excising political life (reality) and it investigates the social change by providing knowledge of the forces of domination, inequality, and oppression. By doing so, critical theory offers individuals opportunities to liberate themselves. It is also regarded a critical, because it adopts self- critique´-or-critical self reflection position. A concrete meaning of self-reflection is that critical theory is a “process of reflection which requires the participation of the researcher in the social action being inquired,´-or-rather, that participants become researchers.” Lee Harvey raises a very important argument regarding how we can distinguish critical theory from other approaches. He says that to define critical as a critique while other theories aren’t, is only an artificial distinction. Every research process employs some notion of criticism. Therefore, the difference between critical researches and other approaches isn’t based upon the presence´-or-the absence of critique. He maintains that critique in critical theory is an integral part of research process. This means that the difference lies in the methodological position of critical theory.
How can we understand the methodological position of critical research?
Ontological foundation of critical theory is historical realism. It means a reality is assumed to be shaped by many historical factors (social, political, gender, economic, ethnic and culture) and then crystallized into a series of structures that are now taken as real. The reality of social structure is a virtual reality. Virtual reality means an illusory reality which-limit-s out thinking and needs to be challenged because it has shaped oppressive structures. In these structures, power relations are constructed in a way that one group dominates other groups. There is a hegemonic group which exerts an oppressive force on subordinate groups. Iris Young , the feminist thinker, points out that the five faces of oppression- these are : marginalization, powerlessness, violence, cultural imperialism, and exploitation are the product of social norms and rules embedded in a restrictive structure of forces that immobilize a group of people. She maintains that oppression is a structural concept describes the exercise of tyranny by a certain group.
According to critical theory, social reality should be condemned and the task of knowledge should be social criticism translated into social action to transform the existing reality. Critical theory is thus a normative theory because it judges reality and it considers how things ought to be. In addition, historical realism of critical theory denies any absolute conception of truth. Social reality is produced by humans and also dominates human experience. In other words, what are presented as facts cannot be separated from the self interest of the dominant groups.
Further, critical theory refuses the dualistic character of reality as argued by positivism. Critical theory points out that the human agency in dualistic character is either alienated from nature´-or-reduced blindly to it. Critical theorists refuse the objective “out there” view of reality and they say that this is the “objective view from nowhere.” They don’t mean that truth isn’t possible-;- rather they emphasize on the importance of the interactive relation between the researcher and the participants and on the impacts of socio-historical context (subjectivism) . Critical theorists see that social scientific inquiry is implicated in complex modes of production and regimes. In so doing, Susanne Gannon and Bronwyn argue, “They historicized and contextualized social science for the first time.”
Accordingly, value neutrality is something impossible in the eyes of critical researchers. Horkheimer thinks that the value neutrality of positivism abets the status quo. The nature of knowledge, according to the famous Frankfort scholars, is not the mirror of reality-;- rather it is a critique of virtual reality that-limit-s our thinking. Put it in another way, the epistemological position of a critical social research looks at knowledge and critique as intertwined. If we want to build knowledge, we should go into in-depth analysis of socio-political structures and discover the sources of inequality, criticizing them and thinking of liberating human beings.

How can this critique transform reality´-or-how does the emancipative ontology contribute to change the political reality “fetishize knowledge”?
Critical theory is the blue-print- of recent critical social researches which aim to the existing oppressive social structures. The aim of critical theory is to challenge and to transform reality. The ontological basis of critical theory is thus normative, emancipative, and becoming ontology. In order to transform reality, critical theory refuses dualistic nature of social reality. Instead, it shares with interpretivism its subjectivity. However, unlike other post-positivists approaches, critical theory pays more attention to values, to the fetishize knowledge, and virtual reality. It also makes target groups as researchers for solution and alternative path of life (subjective epistemology and dialogical methodology). Therefore, unlike all other trends of positivism and post-positivism, according to critical researchers, objective reality is itself under question and exposing. Reality was shaped historically by interacting factors (social, political, cultural, and economical) constructed in specific context by power relations that empowered some people and marginalized others.
Critical theory denies the objective status of knowledge and it is concerned with the procedural nature of it. Therefore, critical methodology is based on interrogation values, exposing hegemony, challenging oppressive social structures, and then engaging in social actions. Participants and researchers are both subjects (dialogical methodology) in the dialectical task of challenging and then recreating knowledge (deconstruction- reconstruction). One example of applying deconstruction and reconstruction is to take housework as a subject matter. Feminists break down this concept into a set of activities which are viewed within dominant´-or-fetishize knowledge as constituting its essence (washing dishes, ironing clothes, etc ) . Then, they reconstruct power relations by extending activities of private realm to political sphere “wider structural arrangements, especially gender inequalities in society.” Another example is the deconstruction applied by post colonial theorists. They seek to deconstruct the centralized, logo-centric master narratives of European culture. The methods adopted by critical researchers seek to involve participants in designing questions, collecting and analyzing data. They use focus group discussion, open- ended questionnaires, and open and ended interview. The target groups are often marginalized individuals and suffer from inequality based on race and gender.
Coming back to the imagined fishbowl, critical theory neither observes fishes from outside, nor simply enters and interacts with them-;- rather it seeks to liberate them and to give them tools for social emancipation. Paulo Freire, one of the Frankfort scholars says: “liberation is thus a child-birth, and a painful one.”
Critical theory is cultural Marxist theory not Marxism
Critical theory is not the Marxist theory but neo-Marxism and it is called cultural Marxism. Max Horkheimer breaks with Marx’s analysis of culture. In the opinion of Horkheimer, culture is very critical in shaping the society. In contrast to Marx, he refuses that culture is merely part of superstructure which determined by economic factors. The prominent neo-Marxist, Horjkheimer confirms that culture is independent.
The idea of oppression in the cultural Marxism doesn’t only focus on the working class, rather it contains many approaches that are interested in explaining and transforming all the conditions that enslave human beings. Besides, destruction, as I have mentioned above, is the very basis of the epistemological position of critical theory in order to build knowledge. In this sense, Horkheimer argues that the aim of critical theory is to destruct western culture by using the analysis of Freudian concept of psychological repression instead of class antagonism’s Marxist basis of analysis. Critical theorists see oppression under capitalism has its psychological aspect. People live in a constant state of psychological repression in capitalist western culture.
Concluding remarks
Whether the researchers are aware of not, they rely on specific ontology and corresponding epistemology. Methodology and methods themselves emanate from the researchers’ view of the social world. There would be no systematic research without being aware of methodology.
In social sciences, the question of objectivity and subjectivity and the question of value neutrality are core points in the debate between various paradigms in social sciences. However, modern scientific approach acknowledges uncertainty as the nature of knowledge. Therefore, critical theory is significant in this sense. On the one hand, it is a post-positivist approach which refuses the absolute reality and knowledge. It also shares with constructionism and interpretivism that knowledge is not discovered, but rather it is socially and historically constructed knowledge.
What critical theory adds is the critique of the construction of the reality itself. It criticizes the configuration of virtual reality and the fetishize knowledge. It argues that critique and knowledge are interwoven and knowledge is a dynamic process. Critique is thus the essential part of the critical theory. It criticized social reality that created and has been creating an oppressive structure throughout the history. In this sense, when critical is ascribed to theory, this doesn’t merely mean criticism. Critical means that the inner basis of this theory constructs around criticizing knowledge itself.
In this paper, I argued that critical theory evolved from the post-positivist paradigm, but it has taken its own paradigm later “the critical paradigm”. Emancipative ontology, subjectivist epistemology, dialogical methodology, and qualitative methods constitute the foundations of the critical theory assumptions.
Although post-positivism and positivism are competing paradigms, both are based on static ontology. Critical theory comes to shape a discontinuity at the level of ontology. For the first time, social inquiry is contextualized and historicized by the contributions of critical theory. Culture, fetishize knwlege, context, interaction, emancipation, human agency, history, structure, marginalization, deconstruction, reconstruction, consciousness, freedom of people, and power relations are the concepts which gives the critical theory its identity.
If we imagine society as a fishbowl, positivism tends to stay as far away from the subject. Post-positivism prefers to go deeply into the fishbowl in order to know how fish live in their bowl “context”. Critical theory neither observes fishes from outside, nor simply enters and interacts with them-;- rather it seeks to liberate them and to give them tools for social emancipation.
I conclude my paper by saying that there is no social approach´-or-paradigm is “perfect” and “better than other approaches” Uncertainty of social phenomenon puts-limit-ations to every approach. More than one paradigm can exist within a single discipline.


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