Postmodern critical social theory constructs a way of thinking about the world and questioning how knowledge evolves. It includes consideration of how knowledge is created; the role of language as a powerful expression of the dominant ideology; the roles ofhistory and context; and the importance ofsocial interactions to achieve change (Payne, 2014; Wulff, 2011). A fixed positivist stance is abandoned for an understanding that multiple views and truths are pertinent to lived experience. A humanistic approach to difference acts as a corrective to empiricism and a deficit approach that overly pathologizes divergence and perspectives of diversity. As such, within critical social theories all views are important and provide a valid perspective on the meaning of lived experience (Agger, 1998; Fook, 2008; Kohi, Huber, & Faul, 2010; Mullaly, 2007; Ortiz & Jani, 2010; Wulff, 2011). These perspectives set the stage for understanding social change and, just as importantly, incorporate a commitment and call for action. The act of attempting to understand the world is begun to promote action toward transformation (Agger, 1992, 1998).


Agger (1998) presents shared assumptions of postmodern critical social theories as a means to identify common principles. Defining features include endorsing the following:

  • • Knowledge as socially constructed and not value-free; doubt whether objective truth can ever be captured; and opposition to positivism and reliance on testable, empirical truth (Fook, 2008; Love & Estanek, 2004; Robbins et al., 2012; Wulff, 2011)
  • • The possibility of progress as intricately linked and affected by both context and history; concepts of stability, predictability, and controllability yielding to an understanding that the world is at the same time complex, unpredictable, and interconnected; and change as a continuous feature of reality
  • • Hope for progress as an inherent product of change
  • • The path to social change exists through everyday occurrences, through increased awareness of the conditions that determine them, and through believing in people's individual agency and power to effect change. Yet, personal liberation is not adequate on its own, nor is it the sole aim of transformation. To be effective, evolution and change are required on both individual and societal levels; one is connected to the other (Agger, 1992).

Postmodern perspectives and critical social theories provide vital and practical frameworks that set the stage for the pursuit of change. Under this umbrella, a number of anti-oppressive theoretical and practice approaches emerge; their development and range have been described by several authors (cf. Allan, Pease & Briskman, 2009; Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 2007; Baines, 2007; Dalrymple & Burke, 1995; Dominelli & McLeod, 1989; Fook, 2008; Leonard, 2001; Marchant & Wearing, 1986; Moreau, 1979; Mullaly, 2002, 2007; Payne, 2014; Robbins et al., 2012; Shera, 2003; Turner, 2011). However, these authors use different means for grouping the approaches; distinctions are often blurred by the many shared principles and the lack of explicated preferred applications. Interestingly, often missing within these anthologies, and of particular interest here, is critical race theory, which provides a clear focus for the work of undoing racism (Crenshaw, 2011; Delgado, 1995a, 1995b; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001).

Although anti-oppressive practice approaches take a somewhat different focus, they share common elements. Each places emphasis on understanding power and oppression and on divisions created by structural inequalities (Dominelli, 2002). Each proposes that change strategies are required at multiple levels. Becoming aware of how experiences of domination are individualized is stressed. This stance includes attempts to eliminate the potential negative impact of professional power that separates those who serve from users of service. Proponents of these approaches recognize the interconnections between the oppressor and the oppressed. They see domination as pervasive, accepted as normal, and often invisible. Uncovering underlying ideologies and operating assumptions is the key to understanding how social structures perpetuate social injustice. They propose that we create our own meanings and institutions, and therefore, that the possibility for a more just society is within our reach. Ways to create opportunities to develop increased awareness of these processes is achieved through a person-centered philosophy and egalitarian values. Mutuality, collaboration, and partnership characterize working relationships with those served. A call to action and a belief in the potential for transformation are endemic (Agger, 1998; Allan, 2009; Dominelli, 2008; Fook, 2008; Payne, 2014).

Certain concepts are embedded within these commonalities. These include social construction, notions of power, and how social identities are formed and maintained. A brief consideration of these concepts is provided below.

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