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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

Critical Theory

Critical Theory

For research to be emancipatory it needs to be solidly grounded in critical theory, which questions the assumptions of traditional Western modernist research. What Ralph Pettman refers to as the “modernist project” began in seventeenth century Europe and is based on the idea that unfettered reason is an end in itself (Pettman 2001). This pursuit of rationalism was itself believed to be universally emancipatory, as reason was seen to lead to the betterment of society because of its ability to “discipline power with truth” (Krasner cited in Zalewski 1996:344). Universal “Truth” was determined through reason and rationality, which were themselves seen to be neutral. However, thinkers such as Foucault have called this neutrality in to question, and claimed there is no possibility of universal understanding, no way of standing outside of the present historical and social context, no ground for general principles (Rabinow 1991). Academics are embedded in the world, and are not capable of the god-eye-view they strive for. As Pettman puts it, modernism contains the seed of its own unraveling by critical theorists, for "there is nothing to stop the rationalist from standing back to look - at standing back to look" (Pettman 2001:92). Thus, postmodernists are able to argue for plural “truths”, since the tools of modernism do not generate universal “truth” but rather meaning, which is based on agreement over the rules for producing “truth” (Zalewski 1996).

When we stand back to look at who makes the rules about what counts as valid epistemologies and methodologies, the idea of “disciplining power with truth” becomes problematic. According to Foucault, it is the very search for such universals that has blinded us to the actual ways that power function in our society (Rabinow 1991). The institutions that claim to be neutral should be the first to be scrutinized. While it is often presented as being purely liberating, knowledge is inherently bound up with power. Social sciences have been involved in the control of dominated groups through “dividing practices” - in which people are objectified, categorized and therefore able to be excluded if they are outside of a perceived “norm”. This is closely related to “scientific classification”, which treats the body as a thing and adds to objectification. At the centre of ‘modernity’, and therefore the norm against which all else are judged, is the white, middle class, European male (Pettman 2001). Suddenly, the “truths” uncovered through this rationalism look a lot less universal, a lot less emancipatory.