The Mess We’ve Made: Critical Theory for Tackling Grand Challenges
Written by
Eric Haynes
Est. Reading: 10 minutes

“Should we keep our critique to ourselves and simply relish in the aesthetic pleasure that writing critically may provide us with (or suffer in silence at our inability to make a difference)? Or should we champion the cause of the oppressed at the risk of further contributing to their domination by having our critique appropriated and translated into ‘performative knowledge’?” (Founier and Gray, 2000)

Unique among Habermas’s cognitive interests is the emancipatory interest (Habermas, 1974; Wilmott, 2003). While technical interests focus on enhancing, predicting, and controlling certain variables and practical interests aim to remove misunderstandings through interpretation, an emancipatory interest is explicitly interested in transformation through addressing unnecessary exploitative mechanisms and structures which oppress people. The goal of doing this is to advance our social institutions to improve societal relations. Critical theory is an approach to this emancipatory interest which seeks to reveal and challenge oppressive social structures. The underlying logic being that social structures are socially constructed and, therefore, can be reconstructed.

The idea of emancipation from social structures is a key feature of societal development throughout human history. Human-imposed social structures produce hegemonic forces and, therefore, tensions which ultimately lead to an old system being replaced by a new one. This phenomenon can be observed throughout history. As examples, throughout classical Chinese history, the presence of a hegemonic state led to periods of  political consolidation and unification which were eventually followed by deunification and civil wars. The tensions that led to the French Revolution and the subsequent abolishment of the French monarchy were also broadly a result of class tensions between the ruling elite and the lower classes. Though the reasons for the replacement of social structures throughout history may vary, they share this cyclical characteristic leading toward emancipation. Karl Marx’s critical theories, in particular, outline human development as a process of continual class conflict. Applied to capitalism, this class conflict is situated between those who own the means to production (bourgeoisie) and the working class (proletariat). As a result of class consciousness, Marx stipulated, the proletariat would emancipate themselves by capturing the means of production and consequently overrule the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.

In organizational sciences, critical theory is criticized for having little impact on organizational behavior (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992) because of either an anti-performative stance or outright antagonism rather than engagement… Click To Tweet

In organizational sciences, critical theory is criticized for having little impact on organizational behavior (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992) because of either an anti-performative stance or outright antagonism rather than engagement with managers (Wickert and Schaefer, 2015). “Progressive performativity” is a way of engaging with managers that stimulates incremental change and starts on an individual relational level (Wickert and Schaefer, 2015). However, in the context of approaching macro level grand societal challenges, critical theory has a lot to offer the organizational sciences. This essay highlights social movements which mobilized as a result of the desire to emancipate certain social groups from incumbent power structures. Additionally, I reflect on what these macro level social movements could mean for organization science researchers and how a critical lens could act as a mode for tackling grand challenges.

Suffrage and Segregation

The recognition and criticism of a hegemonic social group was a key characteristic in both the universal suffrage and civil rights movements during the 20th century. Originally, in the United States, the Constitution did not explicitly define the boundaries of who was eligible to vote. In most states, however, white men who owned land were the only ones allowed to consistently take part in the voting process. This added up to being about 6% of the population of the country at the time. While women’s suffrage began to take shape as a movement in the 1850s, opponents to women’s voting rights claimed the concept was too extreme and radical (Katz, 2021) and it took until 1920 to pass the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. Notably, this did not provide immediate suffrage to all women, in fact until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, various legal mechanisms were employed to restrict women’s voting rights (McConnaughy, 2013). Even though there was a substantial change in policy, systemic injustice persisted in the decades following. However, the identification of the social forces which resulted in oppression and the restriction of voting rights was a key catalyst that facilitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act almost 100 years later.

Concurrent to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States was the civil rights movement. Interestingly, both first wave feminists and civil rights activists share the Voting Rights Act as a milestone in their emancipation. The civil rights movement came about because of racial discrimination and social disenfranchisement. Notably, this movement also did not begin in the mid-20th century. Like first wave feminism, the civil rights movement has its origins in post-civil war Reconstruction America - around the 1860s. However, the mass non-violent protests that characterized the early stages of civil rights activism were exacerbated by the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the proliferation of intentionally racist Jim Crow laws. The Black Panthers, a party established for the purposes of self-defense against police violence in majority African American neighborhoods, explicitly employed Marxist concepts and analyses to highlight the overlap the between class and racial struggles as well acted as a representation for the proletariat in the context of racial segregation (Duncan, 2022). Fourth wave feminism and post-civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter follow from these early emancipatory efforts and emphasize intersectionality to understand how systemic factors facilitate privilege and discrimination (Cooper, 2016). These movements both carry an emancipatory interest combined with revealing power structures that oppress groups of people.

Challenging Heteronormativity

Intersectionality as an analytical framework also includes other sociopolitical identities such as gender, class, ethnicity, disability, and religion. However, an interesting movement to touch on in the context of critical theory is the LBGTQ+ movement. While advocates for decriminalizing homosexuality, including Jeremy Bentham, existed during the Enlightenment, heterosexuality had been widely essentialized as the preferred or ‘natural’ mode of human sexual behavior and relationships (Harris and White, 2018). The effect of this preferred heteronormativity implies a privilege that heterosexual individuals experience and lack of legitimacy and, in the majority of countries, basic human rights for non-heterosexual people.

Queer theory as a critical lens that crystalized during the 1990s, was influenced in large part by post-structuralism which understood sexuality as a social construct. The academic literature which has followed from queer theory is often oriented at exploring gender and sexuality that exist outside of the hetero- and cisnormative boundaries and challenge heteronormativity as a oppressive social force. Importantly, queer theory covers levels of analysis from micro-level individual identities and behaviors to wider sociopolitical and legal trends. As a branch of critical theory, queer theory and challenging heteronormative standards has facilitated an increased understanding and visibility for LGBTQ+ people and, in some countries, has resulted in sweeping legal affordances. Foucault argues that it is the oppressive structures that we socially construct which normalize heterosexuality and stigmatize homosexuality and that social structures have the ability to be altered and reconstructed (Foucault, 1978). Judith Butler in her 1999 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, extends this critical view to further include gender identities and how cisgender people carry privilege and the resulting oppressive social structures from which non-cisgender people aim to be emancipated.

Political Ecology and The Blue Tick

Political ecology as field of study examines intersectionality similarly, but emphasizes environmental issues as opposed to social privilege and discrimination. Instead, political ecology highlights the intersection between politics, social factors, economic climates, and conservation efforts and the impact this has on the natural environment. As an academic discipline within environmental studies, it explicitly politicizes environmental issues by employing poststructural lenses to uncover how power structures (e.g. governments, corporations, and special interest groups) facilitate or hinder sustainability efforts (Benjaminsen and Svarstad, 2019). Understanding the “nature-society dialectic” (Neumann, 2009) helps in analyzing how structures and institutions affect the dialogue around measurable environmental impacts that humans impose.

An important element of political ecology is understanding the shifts in how environmental sustainability is prioritized and defined. To illuminate an example of this, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the largest fishery certification program in the world. Recently, the organization has been criticized heavily by conservationist groups for misleading claims and giving the certified “Blue Tick” label to products that in fact harm endangered marine species. Further investigation into the MSC exhibits a problematic conflict of interest. The organization is built on a business model wherein fisheries can pay for the blue tick certification. In this way, the MSC is dually interested in environmental protection and ensuring economic value for fisher's - contradictory forces which critics claim are irreconcilable (Guardian News, 2021). Even in the face of drastic changes in biodiversity and climate, the interest of the MSC and their prevalence in defining a fisheries sustainability status is important to closely scrutinize if we’re to move toward concrete sustainable changes. Identifying the power that this organization has in this sector is a key stepping stone toward conservation efforts, however their hegemony is not easily countered. From the MSC’s perspective, their interest in maintaining this business model is related to solving global food insecurity issues. However, facing food insecurity with unsustainable fishing practices seems to be a vicious downward spiral. The definition of what is sustainable is, in a way, socially constructed and led by the MSC. The criticisms from conservation groups push back arguing that selling the sustainability tick not only does not meet the objective criteria for sustainability but is more of a marketing tool for fisheries who can afford the “certification”.


It’s notable that all the movements associated with the subcategories of the critical theories discussed are still ongoing efforts. Racial and gender inequalities are still major challenges that we have yet to overcome. In many countries around the world, homosexuality is either criminalized or the rights of same-sex couples are restricted as compared to heterosexual couples. On top of this, gender-confirming practices are either not available or one must take rigorous steps in order to utilize relevant healthcare mechanisms. Sustainability and ‘greenwashing’ have become key concerns in environmental movements and maintain a highly politicized status. However, science that is conducted in the interest of uncovering incumbent power structures can help us further understand grand societal challenges by breaking them down and illuminating foundational issues. Similar to when learning a language or analyzing a piece of text, deconstructing a sentence into its fundamental parts can help highlight unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar structures which furthers one’s understanding of that language.

However, science that is conducted in the interest of uncovering incumbent power structures can help us further understand grand societal challenges by breaking them down and illuminating foundational issues. Click To Tweet

In organizational science, critical theories can help us further our understanding of deep structures in organizations and what impacts they may have on different levels of analysis. For example, in examining issue selling in an ecosystem, finding the forces which drive emergent power structures can lead to our understanding of how certain actors become dominant, others become oppressed, and what ‘class struggles’ this may create in the ecosystem. Sustainability-oriented studies could identify how the definitional boundaries of sustainability are driven by actor interests (such as the Marine Stewardship Council). Studies could focus on how this boundary work is conducted and what mechanisms facilitate this for different actor groups. These macro level insights could be instrumental in understanding what needs changing.

While critical theory does not often lead to direct immediate praxis, the identification of oppressive structures and mechanisms can provide the basis for some directionality. This is particularly relevant for policies aimed at addressing societal challenges. While uncovering oppressive and exploitative social institutions is one function of critical theory, it can also provide a foundation for developing alternatives that avoid unnecessary repression (Willmott, 2003). While a postmodern perspective would criticize this approach for attempting to construct a grand narrative, critical theory applied to the social movements discussed did provide a catalyst for change, even if incremental and long-term, in some cases over a century. Organizations, and particularly collaborations between them, are currently being viewed as principal ways of addressing grand social challenges (Kaufmann and Danner-Schröder, 2022). Like social moments of the past, critical theories provide a valuable lens in this line of inquiry by identifying and critiquing social structures that we may take for granted. Revealing this has the potential to catalyze the transformation of our social institutions on a macro level and effectuate visible changes that begin to unravel some of the messes we’ve made.

Similar to social moments of the past, critical theories provide a valuable lens in this line of inquiry by identifying and critiquing social structures that we may take for granted. Revealing this has the potential to transform… Click To Tweet


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