Critical Consciousness Theory

Critical Consciousness Theory focuses on the role of oppression and privilege in creating and sustaining social and individual dysfunction.1–4 Social dysfunction may include disproportional levels of unemployment, disease, crime, homelessness, marginalization, drug traffic, and/or lack of access to services in a community. Individual dysfunction might be substance use disorders and HIV/HCV risk behaviors, and criminal behavior. From a critical consciousness perspective, dysfunction is perceived as a direct consequence of structural and internalized inequality.3–5

Structural inequality is a system of power imbalances maintained by social norms, organizations, policies, and individual behaviors informed by Eurocentric ideologies that prevent marginalized groups of people from enjoying the same rights and opportunities afforded to the general population.3,4,6,7 For the purposes of our work, structural inequality is composed of two domains: privilege and oppression. Whereas structural inequality is the presence of privilege and/or oppression, structural equality is the absence of privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression both have internal and external forms. For instance, believing that one is genetically superior or inferior when compared others is a form of internal privilege or oppression. An example of external oppression includes a store clerk suspiciously watching a customer dueto the color of his/her skin.

Incarceration practices in the United States are an excellent example of structural inequality and, specifically, of external oppression: a disproportionate number of African Americans are incarcerated due to racial profiling, increased police presence in low-income neighborhoods, increased exposure to law enforcement through open air drug markets and harsh mandatory sentences for drug possession.8 Their ability to resume productive lives in the community is sharply limited by privileged legislators, employers, and community residents who deny them access to welfare support, limits their ability to compete for certain types of jobs, apply for financial aid to attend school, and to enjoy basic human rights.8

The dominant culture in the United States has institutionalized rules and engendered biases against convicted felons that keep them out of mainstream society. External privilege is the opposite of external oppression in that the mainstream’s culture and rules provide some advantaged status to a group of people based on some common characteristic (e.g., socio-economic status, sexuality, race, or gender) regardless of merit.9 This imposed advantaged status perpetuates social, economic, and/or political advantage.10 It is important to note that oppression and privilege usually go hand-in-hand in that the privilege of some results in the oppression of others.

In addition to the external forms of oppression and privilege, internalized forms also exist. We use internalized privilege to denote the process by which a person comes to believe and accept the generalized positive messages, beliefs and values that the dominant culture attaches to one’s membership group. For example, a man may believe that he deserves higher pay than a woman in the same job because he has internalized the dominant culture’s belief that the public sphere is a man’s domain. In contrast, internalized oppression is the process by which a person internalizes the negative messages, beliefs, and values that mainstream society attaches to their member group.4,11 Internalized oppression can be manifested in ways that are usually self-destructive or harmful to one’s community.

According to Paulo Freire,2 ignorance is a key tool in the maintenance of oppression. Freire developed Critical Consciousness Theory in response to the illiteracy rates of impoverished Brazilian people.2 Ignorance is more than a lack of knowledge; it is also a lack of critical thinking skills. Knowledge serves a purpose within a society. Often, that purpose is to uphold conventional, often oppressive, ways of thinking. One of the purposes of traditional schooling is to create buy-in to the mainstream. Acquiring knowledge without critical thinking skills may indoctrinate a person into an oppressive culture. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge, critical thinking skills are necessary to resist oppression.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the art of thinking skeptically about information and knowledge,13 the ability to question the source, purpose and potential uses of information and to choose between alternative theories based on evidence. There are many ways in which we acquire knowledge, including personal experience (i.e., trial and error or experimentation) and vicarious knowledge (i.e., the experience of others and knowledge that is passed down). Much of what we think we know is incorrect or does not accurately reflect “reality,” often because our thinking process is flawed. Human thought is often clouded by emotions, stereotypes and covert messages. As a result, it tends to be biased, partial, uninformed or prejudiced.13 Critical thinking reaches beyond mere schooling or literacy to question the reasons for and consequences of thinking certain ways. The skill of critical thinking is what allows people to gain an understanding of who creates knowledge and who benefits from that knowledge within systems of oppression. This awareness is one dimension of critical consciousness.

Critical Consciousness: The Construct

Critical Consciousness refers to the process by which individuals apply critical thinking skills to examine their current situations, develop a deeper understanding about their concrete reality, and devise, implement, and evaluate solutions to their problems. In Community Wise, critical consciousness is a key ingredient for positive behavior change. It has two components: anti-oppressive thinking and anti-oppressive action. Anti-oppressive thinking means developing a deeper understanding of structural and internalized oppression. Anti-oppressive action means collaborative efforts to overcome and dismantle structural and internalized oppression. Developing a critical awareness of systems of privilege and oppression is necessary, because without this awareness, one cannot take action. Critical thinking and the anti-oppressive thinking of critical consciousness work together, because oppression involves controlling information, and it requires uninformed thought. Without the ability to think critically, a person cannot develop anti-oppressive thinking.

The other key ingredient of critical consciousness is anti-oppressive action. Anti-oppressive action occurs at the individual and community levels. The individual can harness resources and work with others to minimize oppression in the community through personal development and community organizing (e.g., volunteering at a community organization, helping disseminate information, engaging in the political process). In order for anti-oppressive action to occur, the entire community must be able to think critically and develop community capacity. Community capacity refers to the community’s ability to effectively draw upon their existing strengths and resources in order to address community problems. Strengths and resources include community members’ participation in community action, empowerment, leadership, skills, resources, understanding of community history, community power, and critical reflection.13–15

Critical Consciousness Development

The development of critical consciousness happens through group dialogue, participatory action, and empowerment. When people develop critical consciousness, they come together to develop and apply critical thinking skills to discussions about their communities, how community conditions impact them, and how they can join in taking action to improve their lives and the lives of their communities. The dialogue goes beyond a simple discussion of personal opinions. It involves the application of critical thinking skills, active listening, and open minds. Through dialogue, it is expected that people will learn about themselves, particularly about how they think and how they limit themselves through deeply held assumptions and beliefs that reflect internalized oppression.5 During critical consciousness–raising, people are encouraged to challenge the forces of oppression that are identified and channel their feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration into anti-oppressive action.

As part of the process of developing critical consciousness, people are expected to identify and join community organizations that address issues that “speak to them.” People learn through direct involvement how to work collectively to achieve a community objective and how to build social connections. Activities may include: attending community meetings, joining organizations as members, creating new businesses that serve community needs, fundraising, volunteering for community oriented events and work, and participating in local politics. People are encouraged to engage their peers in Change Talk and to develop support groups. By involved themselves in consciousness-raising dialogues, people can form new identities and begin to change the way they see themselves, the world around them, and their ability to improve themselves and their own communities.

For more information, go to Paulo Freire Institute in Brazil, Paulo Freire Institute in the US, Paulo Freire Institute in the United Kingdom.


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