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Examples of applied critical theory
April 5, 2014 5:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of critical theory being successfully used to bring about progressive social change. Is there a particular legal, policy or social reform that can be clearly ascribed to the influence of critical theory (or any of its offshoots, such as queer theory or postcolonial theory)? I can think of many examples of activists who are influenced by theory and its concepts -- from queerness to performativity to the panopticon -- but is there any clear evidence of campaigns influenced by theory having tangible impact on lived social conditions, beyond merely "awareness raising" or "reshaping the discourse".
posted by dontjumplarry to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
One place to look is Catherine Mackinnon and the development of sexual harassment law.
posted by grobstein at 5:39 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


Similarly, you might look at "The Duluth Model" for addressing intimate partner violence/domestic violence.
posted by pantarei70 at 5:54 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Critical race theory in the legal world has had some impacts.

In general, though, I think it's hard to draw a direct line between critical theory and social change because organizing for change requires organizers to translate their ideas into 1. concepts that are clear to non-academically-inclined people (which is to say, most of the public) and 2. concrete policy changes, which critical theory rarely delves into. I tend to think of critical theory as being an important "behind the scenes" factor, as you allude to, rather than the driving force of most campaigns.

As an example, many of the people working for trans rights are informed by critical theory ideas around gender performance and the idea of gender as a social construct - but for most people, that's going to be less compelling than appealing to their sense of compassion for trans people, or outrage at injustice towards trans people. So public campaigns around trans rights are informed by but not necessarily explicitly about critical theory.

In fact, many strains of critical theory explicitly reject the idea of absolute truth - which is a problem for public campaigns, where you need to be able to very clearly state a problem and a solution.
posted by lunasol at 6:02 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if you count one-off events like the Rolling Jubilee that wiped out fourteen million dollars of consumer debt as part of a movement based on a Marxist critique of capitalism. I see a lot of the Occupy stuff as outgrowths of Habermasian thought combined with some of the collectivism ideas of Kropotkin and Bakunin. I think it would be tough to find large-scale political movements that weren't influenced by critical theory even if it's just starting at a Society of the Spectacle level.
posted by jessamyn at 6:12 PM on April 5 [7 favorites]


You might be interested in the book The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control. It investigates the interaction between rhetoric, agitation (i.e., sustained effort for a particular social result) and control (responses of the establishment to the agitation), and how these variables can be engaged in particular ways to bring about tangible and significant social change. The books proposes a very specific theory for how these things play out, often with (arguably) predictable results. Much of the book investigates actual case studies in history where these variables played out.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:13 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]




Marxism itself would be the go-to example. You can draw a line from Du Bois to the later civil rights moment pretty easily, as well as from intellectuals in the Global South to decolonization and national independence movements. The connection between college campuses and the antiwar movement is legendary. Occupy, basically spearheaded by intellectuals, led to (pretty lousy) student debt reform, at least.

I'm not sure, though, given the problem as you've laid it out here, what could possibly count, if activism influenced by theory doesn't. Our current norms about gender and sex are pretty clearly shot through by feminist theory and by queer theory, which has since become policy in any number of ways -- but what sort of causal effect are you hoping to see? Legislators citing theorists? Professors running for president? Once you've ruled out influence as a possibility then of course it's hard to show how ideas make concrete change.
posted by gerryblog at 6:02 AM on April 6


How about traces of critical pedagogy in k-12 educational practices? Multiculturalism, bilingualism, inclusion of nonwhite perspectives in curriculum, student-centered classrooms (at least superficially)... These of course can also be linked to progressivism, but post-1960s, they seem to be tinged with a more political thrust. There are links between crit ped and crit theory. It's a stretch, but I guess it depends on what your ends are.
posted by quixotictic at 10:01 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


gerryblog: Some of your examples I wouldn't necessarily recognise as critical theory (neo-Marxist, postmodern and poststructuralist critique starting with the Frankfurt School). If critical theory was instrumental to the antiwar movement, or if poststructuralist feminist theory (as opposed to feminism more broadly) has shaped our current norms about sex, can you show how? What particular theorist was influential? Which of their ideas made the impact?
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:16 PM on April 6


Latin America is much richer in examples, with much more traffic between academic and policy sectors and a broader influence of intellectuals on public life. "Transculturalism" (especially as theorized by Colombian scholar Garcia-Canclini) in has been widely influential on education and cultural policy across many nations, for example.
posted by spitbull at 3:13 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


Oh and there is no doubt about the influence of the Frankfurt School and its derivatives on late 60s radicalism. I'm sure it's been written about by historians. Marcuse, in particular, was widely read by '68 radicals on both sids of the Atlantic.
posted by spitbull at 3:16 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


You could take a look at the way in which theories of gender/sexuality/queerness (e.g. Judith Butler and the performativity of gender) is starting to be applied to the design of public/private space (e.g. bathrooms), since these spaces have direct impact on the inclusion/exclusion of transgendered people. LeFebvre's work has been incorporated into the study of this as well.
posted by thebots at 6:29 PM on April 6


This is not my sphere, but fwiw, I think the left's simplistic reliance on Alinsky and his rules have had a really counterproductive effect on the development of social progress/change.
posted by mmiddle at 6:52 AM on April 7


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