In the last decade or so, most undergraduate courses, especially at the newer universities, have included a stream of activity known as “personal development”. Secondary schools and Further Education colleges have been including this for slightly longer. The content of the programmes varies considerably; the less adventurous will concentrate on the practical aspects of career management – how to write a CV, how to find a job, and so on. The most adventurous (and to be fair this is probably the preserve of the more sophisticated arts and social sciences programmes) explore concepts of “self” and the nature of ‘character’ and ‘personality’.
These latter themes have long featured as an integral aspect of a few subject areas – for example, it is hard to train as an actor without delving deeply into your emotions, what triggers them, and why. Some disciplines (especially the ‘fine arts’) have always dwelt in this area, though their teaching of them may have been less structured – left to the ‘discretion’ and competence of the teaching staff. Some disciplines that might be expected to delve deep into the area seem to focus on theory (eg psychology), while others focus more on the experiential and rather too little on the theory (eg psychotherapy).
In some cases, these explorations are seen as a natural outcome of a style of teaching – Socratic questioning in a tutorial environment. This has long been the case at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, but also happens at other, more traditional, institutions. If you ‘get it’ then you will do well; if you don’t then your appreciation of the subject is going to be restricted. Some might argue that this is the difference between a 2:1 and a 2:2.
The term for this work is “critical analysis” and it is the practical application of the field of “critical theory”.
Critical theory is the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”
I try to teach critical theory. Quite a lot, actually. It comes up in most of the courses that I’m involved in, whether they are concerned with leadership, entrepreneurialism, coaching, behavioural science generally, or photography.
Let’s edit the definition above;
“Critical theory applies knowledge from the social sciences and humanities, to help us reflect upon (and gain insight into) the ways in which the circumstances of our past and present (individually and collectively) shape our personal perceptions (and those of societies) of the world around us.”
Students can usually understand this at the level of a society, but they struggle to do so at that of the individual. Let me give three examples.
(1) David – the manager. Graduated in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and has been working for Euclid Electrical for 5 years. He is a respected member of the management team, looking after aspects of production which include sourcing components internationally and leading the quality function. His role has become increasingly significant as more and more of the production process is sourced and overseen in China. The CEO has been informally proposing to the management team that they consider asking the holding group if they would allow a management buy-out (MBO). There are plenty of reasons to think that they would agree. David is the most reluctant member of the team. He keeps putting forward arguments against, even though they have been thoroughly addressed in discussions and by an independent report by a management consultant. Over Christmas, he explains what is going on to his father, who was also an electrical engineer until he took early retirement from an internationally renowned engineering consultancy. David’s wife is listening to, but not engaging in, the conversation. That night, David feels that she is a bit remote, and asks her what is the matter. She explains that she finds David’s behaviour with his father upsetting. He seems to treat him as if he was still a young child, as if his father was SO clever, SO much better at everything, and by implication that David was SO stupid, SO naive, SO much ‘less’ in all kinds of ways. She points out that his parents have done things that David is proud of, and yet he won’t consider himself as capable of doing; even relatively straightforward things to do with vacations and moving house. Tense, they go to sleep. In the morning, David asks his wife if she thinks that he puts his father on a pedestal? If he considers himself so inferior, could it be holding him back? Her hug answers his questions. On the first day back to work, David tells the CEO that he is totally behind the MBO.
(2) Lesley – the photographer. Lesley is in her early 50s, and is a self-taught photographer. She was born and raised in the same town, and lives just a couple of miles away from her parents, on an estate that was built in the 1990s. Now that her own children have flown the nest, she has enrolled in a Foundation Degree at an FE college. The course involves several fortnightly assignments which the students are expected to give each other feedback on. They are told to identify the emotion that they associate with an image and to explain why they think they feel that way. Lesley receives four such comments about her second assignment. They use different words, but each says that they find her images distant, melancholy, unexciting, rather bland. Lesley is shocked. She records the thoughts in her reflective journal and tries to get on with the next assignment. In a coffee break one of her peers, someone that lives quite nearby and that she has met a few times before the course, asks her about the feedback she’d received. When she describes it, the friend says; “Well, we both live in Didcot don’t we, I suppose that’s hardly surprising!” Lesley begins to reflect on the impact that her home town has had on her, both as an individual and as a photographer.
(3) Alex – the psychotherapist. Alex is angry. Despite starting training a decade ago, and having spent at least six years in therapy herself, she still finds herself getting angry. She has always been a bit angry – well, at least, since she was a young adolescent. Her clients come from many backgrounds, but the ones that she most enjoys working with are women who feel that they have been unable to achieve their best because of the pressures of life around them. She often finds that she can empower them, and loves to see them coming out of their shell. Alex has achieved this too, and guesses that this is what she resonates with. It is late 2018, and the #metoo movement is in the news a great deal. Alex realises that she is fortunate never to have experienced the kinds of sexual harassment that many of the women have described in their work. Then, one Sunday, she reads an article in the newspaper about the movement as a whole. She is struck by the unfairness of society as a whole. The examples given don’t simply describe obvious cases, but many far more subtle ones. As she reads them, Alex realises that there have been plenty of times when she has felt that life isn’t fair. She hadn’t labelled it as a gender-related issue, nor realised just how widespread and subtle it could be. It is unfairness that is at the root of her anger, no single issue, no unresolved adolescent angst. Life isn’t fair, and that is what annoys her. The following week, while waiting for a client, she decides to stand for election in her district council. It is the first step in a new political career.
In my examples, I’ve drawn from psychoanalytic theory, environmental sciences, and sociology. They are just examples. The point about critical analysis (and theory) is that we seek to understand how we, our work, and the work of others, are affected by the world in which we have been raised, and the world in which we find ourselves. While insights can be gained from a single focus to this – the highly effective practitioner is always exploring new dimensions to their understanding of the world, so that they can understand themselves, and the factors that are influencing their work at a particular time.
Of course, it is possible to simply plough ahead, but the theory is that people who have such an enquiring mind ultimately become better observers and so better practitioners. Taken at another level, if a practitioner is to do truly impacting work, then they need to be able to understand the complexity of the world in which they are operating. This is not a one-bite process either. The insights gained one day may last a while, but then when a piece of work, or a set of decisions, are revisited there may well be new insights as our own awareness improves.
Critical analysis brings together the understanding of a discipline (such as psycho-analysis) with an appreciation of a piece of work. It doesn’t generally provide a theory for that work itself. In other words, while I might gain insight into Winston Churchill’s fascination with bricklaying by understanding the importance of open-air environments to people with depression, or his need to build something of substance when his daily life was spent dealing with the vagueries of politics, and so on, none of this helps me become a better brick-layer or develop key principles for the training of hod-carriers.