What is Critical Research? | Definition, Examples & Methods

What do critical researchers contribute to social theory? Find out about the fundamentals of critical research in this article. Learn about how researchers understand and analyze power dynamics, sources of inequity, and the subsequent societal implications.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What does critical research mean?
  3. What is an example of critical qualitative research?
  4. Approaches to critical theory


Critical research was created out of a need to examine power, inequities, and the resulting societal implications on the status quo in society. It is a necessary departure from traditional scientific research in that it looks beyond what is directly observable to analyze the social world and develop social theory from novel perspectives to address previous injustices. In this article, we'll look at what critical theory entails for qualitative research, as well as the different strands that make up critical research.

Knowledge generated from critical theory can help researchers understand power structures in society.

What does critical research mean?

In specific terms, critical research examines the nature of power dynamics influencing the social world. More broadly, this has implications for understanding inequality and disparity across cleavages of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and economic class, among other differences in identity.

While there are many different strands to critical research, there are a number of common characteristics that are shared by scholars of critical theory:

  • Contextualization: Traditional research assumes a singular, almost absolutist approach to knowledge. In contrast, critical theory challenges the positivist outlook on scientific research and assumes a more sociocultural outlook to the social world. In adopting a more contextualized approach to any particular social phenomenon, scholars look to making propositions specific to different contexts rather than defining grand, unifying theories that explain socially constructed concepts regardless of individual or cultural circumstances.
  • Subjectivity: Unlike more positivist approaches to research, critical research presupposes a lack of an ability to directly observe physical reality. Moreover, a researcher's perception is often confounded by culturally-reinforced presumptions such as stereotypes and other biases that privilege those in power. The possibility that the social world can be subjectively construed directly challenges assumptions of a positivist understanding of social phenomena. Instead, critical research encourages scholars and laypeople alike to consider the world from different points of view in order to identify problems and inequities that are otherwise invisible within traditional worldviews.
  • Social change: Critical research is seldom interested in generating insights purely out of intellectual curiosity. Critical scholars tend to adopt a philosophy of social justice where research is aimed at benefiting marginalized or oppressed populations who lack the same opportunities and benefits that are otherwise granted to those in mainstream society. In this respect, research and analysis within a critical paradigm are merely preliminary steps in a process that appeals to institutions, stakeholders, and social activists to draw on actionable insights from the research and make tangible proposals for enacting change.
  • Transformation: Similar to the imperative of social change, transformation deals with fundamentally altering contemporary paradigms. However, this aspect to critical research is more concerned with problematizing traditional perspectives of the social world and the phenomena within it, both from a layperson's point of view and from the view of traditional academic institutions that perpetuate mainstream scientific inquiry. Rather than simply acknowledge the subjective nature of the social world, critical research calls for fundamentally transforming perceptions and attitudes in a manner that views marginalized populations more equitably.

What is an example of critical qualitative research?

One of the more famous studies to produce a critical analysis is the doll test first devised by Mamie Clark, then conducted with husband Kenneth Clark starting in the 1940s and replicated in later years. In the doll test, children were asked how they felt about dolls that were put in front of them. The children preferred to play with the dolls that looked white rather than the dolls that looked black, and had more positive views about the white-looking dolls. Children who were black also tended to share the same perception of black-looking dolls, which suggested that their surrounding environment - particularly the school system but more broadly the culture around them - profoundly impacted them by reinforcing negative stereotypes about racial minorities.

Critical theorists argue that such stereotypes, especially when perpetuated by institutions like education and mass media, further contribute to economic and social disparities when children of color experience exposure to negative attitudes about race and ethnicity. This novel research provided fundamental insights that led to the following real-world changes:

  • Desegregation of schools: This research took place in the era where public schools in the United States were separated by race. The findings from the doll test helped make the case that institutionalized discrimination had effects on the educational and emotional development of children of color, ultimately leading to judicial rulings that contributed to school desegregation.
  • Educational reforms: Subsequent discussions of racial stereotypes have helped to further promote initiatives for racial equity and equality in public education. While still undoubtedly controversial to this day, efforts to promote diversity training for teachers, multicultural curriculum development, and other policies to address racial disparities can be partly attributed to the findings of the doll test.
  • Anti-discrimination policies: The findings from the doll test form a scientific basis for anti-discrimination frameworks for public policy, workplace organization, and other formal institutions. Where racism and equality might otherwise be abstract, potentially vague concepts, a scientific framework regarding discriminatory attitudes provides a language for discussing practical implications addressing racism.

Approaches to critical theory

Here are some of the various forms of critical research. Keep in mind that these approaches are not exclusive to each other, though they have their own distinct focus to shed light on specific issues relevant to the social sciences, nor are they exhaustive of the entire array of critical theory.

  • Critical discourse analysis: Researchers who critically analyze communication look at how people exercise power through speech to manipulate or control others. This analytical method connects theories from linguistics, sociology, and anthropology to look at the power of language in constructing social reality.
  • Critical ethnography: Ethnography is an all-encompassing approach to research aimed at capturing relationships, practices, and behaviors within any given context. Beyond a comprehensive examination of cultures, critical ethnographers use the resulting findings to advocate for social change.
  • Critical methodology: Critical scholars may also look at how methods are used to construct scholars' epistemology about scientific knowledge and question approaches to science that emphasize objectivity to a fault. Critical methodology advocates for reflexivity and participatory research as a departure from traditional research methods.
  • Critical race theory: Scholars engaged in critical race theory look at longstanding racial disparities to examine how institutions and power structures perpetuate racism and how people of color can challenge those structures from legal and advocacy standpoints in order to foster equity and equality.
  • Decolonizing research: Focusing on the critique that most established research comes from a Western-based perspective, research on decolonization seeks to deconstruct established philosophical paradigms that disadvantage perspectives of indigenous populations, cultures from the Global South, and other communities that have long been ignored by mainstream scholarship.