What does ‘critical’ mean?

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I have been reading about critical social learning systems and it has set me thinking – what is the difference between social learning and critical social learning.  Or perhaps more specifically, what did Bawden and his colleagues seek to emphasise and draw attention to when they chose to use the prefix the phrase with the word critical?

So back in time…

I think the first time I read explicitly about the word ‘critical’ was in relation to discourse analysis.  This course was about different traditions of discourse analysis for use in social sciences – it kind of assumed you were heading to be a researcher.  Some of the traditions were prefixed with the word ‘critical’  – so for example, there was discursive psychology but there was also critical discursive psychology.  The key distinction that was being made here was a choice the researcher made about how politically engaged they should be.  At one extreme there were people who advocated detachment of a researcher from politics and at the other people who said the two were inextricably linked – a researcher had to choose their stance.  Scanning back through the core text now (Wetherell et al, 2001) I found this quote from Van Dijk which I think is particularly relevant:

Although not in each stage of theory formation and analysis, their [researchers] work is admittedly and ultimately political.  Their perspective, if possible, that of those who suffer most from dominance and inequality.  Their critical targets are the power elites that enact, sustain, legitimate, condone or ignore social inequality and injustice.  That is, one of the criteria of their work is solidarity with those who need it most (Van Dijk, 1993, 252 cited in Wetherell, 2001)

I suppose what was significant about this from a research perspective is that the researcher does not purport to being neutral and objective – they are engaged.

The next stage in my journey around the word ‘critical’ is its use in the systems approach ‘critical systems heuristics’.  Here I thought of it in terms of the explicit way in which the approach embraces ethics and makes you identify what should be (from your perspective).  This normative, ethics approach made it critical – if I connect it with the quote above – because it explicitly made you consider those who ”suffer most from dominance and inequality” and what ought to be.

So now back to critical social learning systems.

First of all I noticed that Blackmore (2010, 36) says “the ethical dimension is manifest in the ‘critical’ focus of the Hawkesbury work which […] has been influenced by critical theory”.  Off I go to Wikipedia and find quite a useful article on Critical Theory (accessed 16 Feb 2010).  There is one line in there that I think is particularly helpful in understanding critical social learning.

Critical social theory is […] a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation to reduce entrapment in systems of domination or dependence, obeying the emancipatory interest in expanding the scope of autonomy and reducing the scope of domination.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory (accessed 16 Feb 2010)

I suppose what I find helpful here is the links with reflexivity – thinking about thinking etc.  There also seem connections with systems practice that we have to be aware of how we think and act and the way that that is shaped by institutions and language that can be traps to us.  So critical social learning could be about ‘expanding the scope of autonomy and reducing the scope of domination’.  I also see parallels with Bawden’s use of Kitchener’s levels of cognitive processing as including meta-cognition (knowing about knowing) and also epistemic cognition (knowing about the nature of knowledge) (Bawden, 1999, 47).

The other dimension of ‘critical’ that I noticed in the text (to date!) is Bawden’s association of the word ‘critical’ with being self-referential.  “The central feature of such an approach is therefore the design, establishment, maintenance and development of self-referential, or critical, learning systems” (page 43).  By that he means a system able to learn about its own learning.

Now I have looked into this, the dimensions associated with the word ‘critical’ don’t seem all that unfamiliar.  As an individual practitioner we are encouraged to be reflexive and engage with our own values.  I think that the use of the word critical is to bring attention to this as part of social learning.


Van Dijk, T (1993) ‘Principles of critical discourse analysis’ Discourse and Society, vol 4, pp 249-85 cited in Wetherell, M (2001) Debates in Discourse Research, Chapter 27 in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., and Yates, S (2001) Discourse Theory and Practice: A reader, The Open University/Sage Publications, Milton Keynes/London.

Bawden, R (1999) The Community Challenge: the learning response in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

One thought on “What does ‘critical’ mean?

  1. We had a course forum discussion about this issue during which Jitse van Ameijde (a tutor) posted the following useful post. (copied here with permission)

    Hi all,

    I can connect with a lot of what is being said here and in Helen’s blog about the use of the word ‘critical’ in connection to critical learning systems. My personal understanding of the word ‘critical’ in this context has mostly been shaped by Werner Ulrich’s (and by extension Kant’s) and Jurgen Habermas’ work on critical systems thinking and critical social theory.

    For me, critical thinking and critical learning involve a concern with:

    1. the limits of our knowing (i.e., that knowledge can never be wholly objective nor fully comprehensive)
    2. the idea that knowing involves different epistemological dimensions (i.e., different ways of knowing such as factual, conceptual, experiential, spiritual, intuitive, ecological, socially embedded, critical, etc.)
    3. the way knowledge both shapes and is shaped by the evolution of social, cultural, and political currents (or the flux of events and ideas in Vickers’ words).

    I would say that without appreciating these aspects of knowing, knowledge can become a trap which imprisons individuals, communities, and societies into sustaining existing power relationships. Becoming aware of these aspects and inquiring into them can expose the limits and fundaments of our knowing and become the first step into facilitating emancipation from this imprisonment, thereby transforming existing power relationships. Because these concerns involve not just the ‘knowing’ itself but also the basis of this knowing, critical thinking and learning need to be ‘self-referential’ or ‘reflexive’ – i.e., thinking about thinking and learning about learning. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be able to inquire into its own roots and explore its own validity, appropriateness, limitations, etc.

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