Examining Critical Social Theory’s Relationship with Social Work Practice Utilizing Historical and Current Case Studies


Critical Social Theory modernizes Marx’s views on social criticism by opening its umbrella over societal oppression in its many forms.  Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and other related theoretical pathways lead to -- and from -- the ability for certain swaths of the population to be in the spotlight or forced into the shadows.  According to Young (2012), “Injustice refers primarily to two forms of disabling constraints, oppression and domination” (p. 328) and involve decision-making procedures, divisions of labor, and culture.  Building on that foundation, Ortiz and Jani (2010) write, “Marginalized social groups suffer from restricted access to resources and opportunities which result in decreased levels of educational attainment, poorer-quality health care, lack of affordable housing, lower income levels, and lower general well-fare” (p. 182).  Community organizers who apply this lens to their work can draw focus to the places where systemic issues related to race, gender, and other social demarcations are broadening the gaps between the dominant members of society and those who are relegated into the less powerful realms of consideration.  This paper will consider two phenomena -- one historical and one current event -- whose examination with a social theory spotlight can illuminate the areas where woeful neglect of the full story resulted in harm and inequity as well as ways to use these events as cautionary examples of what not to do with communities moving forward.

The Unearned Legacy of Christopher Columbus

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… This simple rhyme is taught in many classrooms across the country as means of telling the story of the “discovery” of America.  Many school children conflate Christopher Columbus’ exploration of Caribbean islands with him being the one who “found” mainland United States. The reality, though, is this Italian explorer never set foot on what would become US soil.  Yet, still, Columbus is often credited as “one of the founding figures” (Paul, 2014, p. 46) of this country and celebrated every October 12th with his own nationally recognized holiday as well as parades, statues, and other memorials.  According to Paul (2014), Columbus’s story “has developed into one of [our] core foundation myths and...has profoundly shaped the national imaginary” (p. 43).  For many generations, Christopher Columbus was lauded as a hero in the zeitgeist of our collective memory as we all fell in line with his telling of the story of not only what he discovered, but what he “conquered” and controlled in the name of colonial expansion for the powerful European nation of Spain.  In letters, Columbus boasted about how easy it was to overtake the Native people, when the reality is that the indigenous people had no way of understanding his language or what it implied.  As Paul (2014) writes, “Columbus ostensibly played a trick on them” (p. 47).  From a white perspective, then, Columbus is “posited as a great man of history, an individual who can compel the actions of others” (Meyer-Wolf, 2019, p. 97), but from the Native’s perspective, it likely felt more like “the horror [of] these white monsters from the sea” (Meyers-Wolf, 2019, p. 95).  What the broader scope of historical understanding reveals is that “for many Native Americans, Columbus’s arrival in the Americas marks the beginning of colonialism, genocide, rape, slavery, expropriation, displacement, and cultural death” (Paul, 2014, p. 69).  Yet, still -- find an elementary school student who couldn’t recite the rhyme about when this man “discovered” the Americas.

What this illuminates from a practice perspective is the strident focus on “dominant” storytelling -- in relying on the white, male lens of a circumstance or situation.  In this case, history books proclaim Columbus as a prominent face of the American lexicon -- he is someone we should honor and revere without question.  Young (2012) refers to this as Cultural Imperialism, which involves “the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture and its establishment as the norm” (p. 333).  Ortiz and Jani (2010) additionally note that “throughout US history, definitions of race and racial groups have evolved in order to determine who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a dominant group” (p. 178).  In this case, the value of the Native people who Columbus “discovered” was reduced to nil as they were enslaved, raped, and otherwise brutally treated. The even harsher truth is this was only the beginning for the indigenous people in the Americas as Western explorers infiltrated deeper and deeper into their world only to shrink the Native people’s place in their own homeland to practically nothing.

From a practice perspective, then, there is an incredible amount of work to do to undo the deeply entrenched false narrative of Christopher Columbus as a hero-figure. Doing so creates an opportunity to share the historic recollections of the Native people as well as bring attention to the damage this assumption about the power of this white man over these “savages” has done to the national psyche.  Ortiz and Jani (2010) suggest that “counter-storytelling…[captures] the narratives of people of color that highlights their voices and experiences” (p. 186), adding that “locating the voice of the ‘other’ requires social workers to assume the position of learner/teacher” (p. 187).  A community practitioners’ role is to create the opportunity and hold the space for these dialogues to commence and to facilitate next steps.  The application of social theory to this issue “does not assume the existence of universal truths and rejects master narratives that attempt to encompass all phenomena or dictate the construction of lives” (Ortiz and Jani, 2010, p. 176) and, instead, shatters the assumption that the white person’s version of the story is the only relevant one.

The World Wasn’t Ready for Elizabeth Warren

In more current news, for the second time in as many presidential elections, a qualified female candidate failed to shatter the highest political glass ceiling in the United States of America.  In 2016, former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earned the Democratic nomination, but despite being arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in US history, she was defeated by a former reality television show host, lukewarm businessman, and accused sex offender with no political experience whatsoever.  While that shocked Clinton supporters, the implications that American society is simply not ready to accept a female president remained evident as several women, including Elizabeth Warren, attempted to achieve what Clinton could not.  Early on, Warren was touted as the “favorite.”  In fact, Warren was thought to be a strong contender for the nomination, even ahead of the men (Bacon Jr., 2020).  Bacon Jr. (2020) writes, “Once voting started, however, the delegates never really materialized.  Warren...never finished higher than third in any primary or Caucus” (para. 2).

While it may not be entirely possible to understand precisely why Warren reached this impasse, Bacon Jr. (2020) suggests reasons ranging from her being “too liberal” to trying to siphon support off of Bernie Sanders’ equally liberal platform to her academic elitism to the tried and true notion that men are simply more electable. Additionally, Garber (2020) cites vitriol from a variety of media sources who referred to Warren as “sanctimonious,” “a narcissist,” “self-righteous,” “abrasive, “intensely alienating,” a “know-it-all,” and “unlikable” with a “high school principal demeanor” (all quotations found in para. 3). According to Garber (2020), “Boston Magazine ran a 2017 story calling Warren ‘the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 Presidential race. The article was entitled ‘Why is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?’” (para. 10).  Warren knows better than most that female politicians must develop a specialized drive to carry on.  As Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018) write, “It is an adaptive trait women have almost evolutionarily developed that allows them to successfully navigate an electoral arena that is much more precarious for them than it is for men” (p. 172).  Even so, Garber (2020) writes, “One of the truisms of the 2020 campaign -- just as it was a truism in 2016 and in 2008 -- is that women candidates are punished, still, for displays of ambition” (para. 11).  Understanding why remains the “million-dollar question” on the table.

As one starting point, Young (2012) writes, “Oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people experience not because a tyrannical power coerces them but because of the everyday practices of our society” (p. 329). In the case of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, the default social understanding that a powerful woman is a “bad” thing made space for the media to reject her as a viable candidate.  Young (2012) suggests that “oppression… is structural and refers to the vast and deep injustices some folks suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms” (p. 329), which all places a female candidate for president aside with a  “know your place” finger-wagging.  

Social work practice implications, then, are to smash the patriarchy by demonstrating the power and viability of the female voice in society.  This can be done through storytelling, of course, but also through amplifying the successful public service of other women who hold an office at the local, state, or federal level and by encouraging women to run for office themselves.  As Mehrorta (2010) teaches, “Women’s lives resist exact definitions, singular theorizations, or simple metaphors” (p. 421) and what better way to prove that than to provide women with tools to break through those glass ceilings.  By upending the narrative every person in this country is taught about the “role” of men and women by enacting the “new normal” where the idea of electing a qualified president who so happens to be a woman reveals a world where it doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone episode.  


While it is certainly possible that using the lens of Critical Social Theories on a particular issue could yield some faulty results, the choice to apply it rather than not feels especially necessary at this particular moment in time.  As this paper is being written, the Trump Administration is banning Critical Race Theory trainings, calling them “propaganda” that “insinuates that the United States is inherently racist or evil” (Vought, 2020, p. 1).  By this author’s estimations, that is all the proof needed about how on-point and relevant social theories are not just in better understanding how we got here but, even more importantly, helping to reframe the dialogue going forward.  


Bacon Jr., P. (2020, March 5). Why Warren couldn’t win. 

FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-warren-couldnt-win/

Garber, M. (2020, March 5). America punished Elizabeth Warren for her competence. 
The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/america-punished-elizabeth-warren-her-competence/607531/

Lazarus, J., & Steigerwalt, A. (2018). Nevertheless, she persisted: The story of women in 
elected office. Gendered vulnerability: How women work harder to stay in office. University of Michigan Press.

Mehrotra, G. (2010). Toward a continuum of intersectionality theorizing for feminist social work scholarship. Journal of Women and Social Work, 25(4), 417-430.

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46, 175-195.

Paul, H. (2014). Christopher Columbus and the Myth of ‘Discovery.’ In The myths that made America: An introduction to American studies. transcript Verlag.

Vought, Russell. (2020, September 4). Memorandum for the Heads of Executive 
Departments and Agencies. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/M-20-34.pdf

Wolf-Meyer, M. J. (2019). Mutating Temporalities: Slipstream Christopher Columbus. In 
Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. U of Minnesota Press.

Young, I. M. (2012).  Five faces of oppression. In DeFilippis, J., & Saegert, S. The 
community development reader, 2nd ed. (pp. 328-337). New York: Routledge.

Written while in pursuit of my MSSA

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