Append the word “critical” to an academic field of study and voilà, the field comes across as cutting-edge and au courant.
At a time when many traditional humanities departments have shrunk, the number of academic programs that have embraced the term “critical” is striking. In addition to critical cultural studies, critical legal studies and critical race studies, there are programs in critical arctic studies, critical childhood studies, critical data studies, critical ethnic studies and critical studies in education, in literacy and pedagogy, and in sexuality. There are also journals with titles like Critical Asian Studies, Critical Romani Studies, Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, and Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture & Social Justice.
Nor are critical studies programs confined to the most elite campuses. To take just one example, the University of North Texas’s Critical Studies in Music and Society program offers courses such as Music Under Capitalism; Histories of Music Production From Printing to Streaming; Musical Roots and Routes: Cultural Identity, Immigration and Diasporic Communities; Music and Race Formation; Music, Nationalism and Decolonial Listening; and Music, Climate and Technology From Beethoven to the Blockchain.
What does it mean to adopt the word “critical” in an academic context?
The term signifies a rigorous questioning and reflective approach to knowledge and understanding. It seeks to go beyond mere description to analyze, evaluate and question assumptions, methodologies and outcomes within a given field of study. Its goal is to uncover underlying structures, biases, norms, power relations and inequalities that have previously been hidden. Critical scholars also practice reflexivity by analyzing their own biases and perspectives and being aware of one’s positionality and how it influences one’s research questions and interpretations.
While not always explicit, critical approaches often include a normative dimension that advocates for social justice, equity and transformation. Intensely concerned with injustice and exploitation, the critical studies approach seeks to identify and critique sources of oppression and inequality and contribute to societal change.
The critical studies approach seeks to analyze and expose the power dynamics that shape social relations, institutions and knowledge production. This involves examining how power operates, who holds it and how it affects marginalized and oppressed groups. It questions the accepted norms, values and assumptions that underpin societal structures and discourses. It challenges what is considered “natural” and scrutinizes the historical and cultural contexts that give rise to these beliefs.
Intensely concerned with issues of inequality, injustice and oppression, this approach draws upon multiple disciplines and aims to identify and address the ways in which certain groups are marginalized, discriminated against or excluded from power and privilege. In addition, the critical studies approach encourage scholars and practitioners to reflect on their own positions, biases and the potential impact of their work on the communities they study. This reflexivity is vital for understanding how one’s perspective influences their analysis and interpretations.
Beyond academic analysis, critical fields typically have a normative dimension that seeks not just to understand the world but to change it. This involves advocating for policies, practices and movements that promote social justice, equity and liberation for all individuals.
For instance, critical childhood studies investigates how childhood is socially constructed, understood and experienced cross-culturally and trans-historically. It challenges the notion that childhood is a natural and universal stage of life; investigates how class, dis/ability, gender, race, religiosity and region shape children’s identities; and highlights how economics, law and politics shape children’s experiences along with their rights and agency. It critiques the ways in which social systems, schools and other institutions reproduce inequalities among children, affecting their access to resources, education and opportunities, and how media and popular culture reflect and reinforce societal norms and expectations and shape children’s self-image.
In addition, this field addresses issues related to children’s physical, mental and emotional health, including the impact of poverty, familial conflict and environmental factors on child well-being. Perhaps most important of all, the field treats children as active agents in their own lives, including their engagement with media and popular culture.
Critical gender and sexuality studies draws on feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, history, and sociology to understand and critique the ways in which gender and sexuality are constructed, experienced and represented.
It investigates how societies define and maintain normative notions of gender and sexuality, how these concepts vary across cultures and historical eras, how various societies define normality and abnormality and how gender and sexuality intersect with other categories of identity and difference, such as race, class, age, ability and nationality, to produce unique experiences of oppression and privilege. In addition, the field examines how cultural systems (involving patriarchy, heteronormativity and cisnormativity) privilege certain genders and sexualities over others, contributing to inequality and discrimination and also how individuals and groups resist oppressive structures, challenge normative gender and sexual roles and construct alternative identities and communities.
In addition to studying how gender and sexuality are represented in media and popular culture and how these representations influence societal norms, socialization practices and individual identity formation, this field analyze how bodies are regulated and disciplined through gender and sexual norms and policy, how gender and sexual identities are performed, and how individuals navigate and resist regulations. Also, this field examines issues related to health, reproduction and bodily autonomy, including access to health care, reproductive justice and the politics of fertility and contraception.
Critical legal studies seeks to challenge and re-evaluate earlier understanding of law. It rejects the idea that law is a neutral or objective system to arbitrate disputes or advance justice and instead argues that law is deeply intertwined with social, political and economic power structures.
Among its contentions: that legal rules and doctrines are indeterminate and that judges and other legal actors interpret the law in ways that reflect their biases, backgrounds and social position. That law legitimizes and perpetuates inequalities based on class, gender and race and serves as a tool for maintaining and reinforcing existing social hierarchies. That law is inherently political and reflects the interests and power dynamics of the larger society and therefore is incapable of delivering justice in an unbiased manner.
Beyond its critiques, critical legal studies explores alternative forms of legal practice. It seeks to show how law might be used as a tool for social change, advocating for more participatory and democratic forms of legal decision-making and exploring the potential for law to promote social justice and equality.
Critical race and ethnic studies seeks to understand how racial and ethnic identities are constructed; how they intersect with issues of power, inequality and resistance; and how racial and ethnic hierarchies and ideologies are formed, maintained and resisted in various domains of social life.
Key areas of focus include the social construction of race and ethnicity—how these categories are socially constructed and historically contingent and change over time; how race and ethnicity intersect with other identity markers such as gender, class, sexuality and nationality, affecting individuals’ experiences of oppression and privilege; and how racism is embedded within social institutions and structures, perpetuating inequality through practices and policies in education, healthcare, the criminal justice system and the labor market.
In addition, this field studies the impacts of colonialism and imperialism on racial and ethnic formations, including the ways in which these processes have shaped global migrations, cultural exchanges and power dynamics. It also examines how racialized groups have resisted oppression, fought for rights and forged communities and identities in the face of systemic racism.
Critical race and ethnic studies also explores the role of social movements and activism in challenging racial and ethnic inequalities, including civil rights movements, Indigenous rights movements and contemporary social justice movements and examines the limitations and possibilities of activism for achieving equity.
By adopting a critical stance, each of these fields challenges and transforms the conventional understandings and structures that perpetuate inequalities and therefore hopes to contribute to the formation of a more equitable and just society.
Ultimately, critical identity studies seeks to foster an awareness of the ways in which identities are multiple, how these are represented in media and popular culture, how they’re embedded in relations of power, and how power structures are constructed, perpetuated and resisted.
Critical studies, in other words, offers a broad canvas for critically examining language and cultural norms and practices and public policies, exposing various forms of bias. It provides a forum for critiquing current policies and practices and understanding and theorizing the structures and discourses of domination. It also expresses an impulse to challenge and resist inequalities and power relations embedded in law, schooling and the economy and to affirm the agency of those groups that have been historically marginalized, oppressed and exploited.
The critical studies revolution has had a significant influence not only on academic discourse but public discussions of gender, sexuality and science, providing important insights into the complexities of identity, power and inequality. But this approach has, of course, not gone unchallenged—and not just by political conservatives.
Serious critics argue that critical studies tends to veer into relativism and subjectivism, suggesting that by emphasizing the socially constructed nature of knowledge, identities and realities, these fields undermine the possibility of objective truth. Other detractors contend that this approach is inherently political and promotes a particular ideological agenda rather than pursuing objective scholarship. Some critics claim that these fields prioritize activism over rigorous academic inquiry, which, in their view, compromises the integrity of academic research and teaching.
Yet another criticism is that critical studies programs at times focus largely on identity, discourse and culture and neglect the material, economic, political and policy bases of inequality and oppression, thereby limiting the understanding and transformation of social relations and institutions.
There are also criticisms from within the field of critical studies about excessive theoretical abstraction, an overreliance on qualitative over quantitative methods, and an overemphasis on power dynamics and oppression as opposed to the richness of the cultures that the marginalized create. In addition, there’s criticism regarding the risks of essentializing identities and the challenges of intersectionality in adequately addressing the complexities of individual experiences.
In response, proponents of critical studies maintain that their work is essential for uncovering hidden structures of power and privilege, challenging oppressive systems and promoting social justice.
What we are witnessing, I would suggest, is a gradual process of institutional evolution and adaption as new critical studies programs proliferate. It leads me to wonder, as a thought experiment, how the academic side of the campus’s organizational structure might change.
To put it bluntly, if we were to establish academic departments and disciplines today, what might they look like? Especially within the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, would they take the form that they do now or might they take a radically different form?
Here’s my view. If colleges and universities were to establish academic departments and disciplines today from scratch, we’d shift away from the traditional departments established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The stand-alone, stand-apart department model would give way to interdisciplinary studies to a greater extent and reflect the complexity of global challenges that do not fit neatly within traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Departments such as Climate Science, Sustainability and Environmental Studies, Global Health, or Arts, Design and Technology would integrate methods and knowledge from various fields to address pressing issues like climate change, global pandemics, sustainability and the impact of technology on society.
This new model would emphasize various forms of interconnectedness. This would include the interconnectedness of knowledge—recognizing the need to combine cultural, ethical, historical, policy and social scientific perspectives with insights drawn from the behavioral, brain and physical sciences. It would also stress global interconnectedness, making global coverage, international comparisons and cultural exchange more central to their mission. In addition, this new model would emphasize the need to combine and connect various methodologies, whether quantitative, qualitative or interpretive, as well as the importance of introducing students to essential, emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to data analytics, industry-specific software and various visualization, text mining, curation, collaboration, annotation and presentation tools.
Unlike the fixed departmental structures of the past, modern academic departments would be more fluid and adaptable, with the ability to evolve as new challenges and technologies emerge. This could involve modular curricula, cross-disciplinary project-based learning and partnerships with industry, government and nonprofit organizations to keep education relevant and responsive to societal needs.
And drawing upon today’s critical studies programs, the new departments would be explicitly designed to address and integrate issues of equity, diversity, power and inequality across all areas of study, ensuring that these critical perspectives are woven into the fabric of academic inquiry.
Change invariably involves losses as well as gains, minuses alongside pluses. Innovation invariably comes at a price. If the academy were to shift toward new academic models that are more integrated, interdisciplinary and problem-focused, such a change wouldn’t be cost-free. There’s a good chance, for example, that chronological coverage would suffer and that topics that I consider important would be relegated to the academy’s margins.
Yet, over all, I think the academy—and especially the humanities—would grow stronger if the humanities disciplines were better connected to the fields that are in highest demand (such as business, communication, computer science, data science, design, engineering, health care, machine learning, neuroscience and sustainability, among others) and to contemporary society’s most pressing challenges.
The discrete, free-standing, autonomous, disconnected departmental model has had quite a run. But, I’m convinced, its time has passed.