Critical Social Theories

Critical Social Theories

Critical social theories focus on addressing the social injustices on a wider scale, rather than focusing on people’s personal problems. Critical social theories assert that social problems emanate from various forms of injustices and oppression mostly seen in capitalist societies. Critical social theories address major themes such as poverty, social exclusion, crime, abuse, racism, and other themes. Critical theories explore the larger impact of influential groups in the society. For instance, they explore how powerful social groups that yield political power propagate social injustices and inequality through their influence or control of media, language, education, terms of debate, and political agenda. This paper examines the dimension of critical social work related to poverty and drawing on three readings.

Critical social work emerged in the 19th century following the development of the professional social work field. The pioneers of critical social work theories were mainly influenced by liberal ideologies and values prevailing during the period. Notable pioneers include Octavia Hill and Charity Organisation Society (Rogowski, 2013). These societies emphasized on values of independence and self-help. Negative characteristics such as laziness led to increase in poverty and other social problems. The pioneers attributed poverty as the result of mean factory owners who only looked after their own interests and the slum property owners who charged high rents. In other words, class inequalities and exploitation were the main causes of poverty (Rogowski, 2013). In fact, some scholars argued that the cause of poverty lies not in the poor, but on the rich who express moral failings and exploit the poor through employment and other means.

Some psychologists attribute poverty to the individual, contrary to the pioneers of critical social work theories who saw poverty as resulting from class inequalities and exploitation of the poor by the rich. These psychologists advocated for intervention models that dwelled on changing the aspects of human behavior in contrast to changing the social environment. According to the psychologist model, individuals languishing in poverty were suffering from lack of needs achievement Carr & Sloan, 2003). This contributed to low motivation for achieving success, thrusting an individual into a perpetual poverty cycle. The psychologists understanding of the causes of poverty disregard the role of social environment in determining poverty levels. This is inaccurate since the social environment plays a critical role in determining the success of individuals. Carr & Sloan (2003) emphasize that in the recent period, the perspectives concentrating on the negative characteristics of the individual were gaining less support due to emergence of other perspectives such as stress management capabilities of the individuals.

Rank (2005) provided a well-developed view of the causes of poverty, basing his views on a sociological perspective. He posits that structural failings inherent within the American society and other societies as well are the major causes of poverty. The assertion underpins the critical social work theory, which assumes that poverty is not the result of personal factors but problems in the larger society. The American society is hedged on capitalistic doctrines. As such, the society emphasizes on individualism, self-sufficiency, and personal success. Those who amass great wealth or control the means of production are sees as hard working. On the other hand, the poor are seen as suffering from personal inadequacies that drag them down into poverty. Contrary to these beliefs, Rank (2004) asserts that poverty results from poor political and economic structures that fail to provide all individuals with equal opportunities. Due to the poor political and economic structures, a segment of the population is hence unemployed at any one time, or forced to accept low wages.

Low-wage earners lack the means or opportunities to escape from the poverty trap. There is lack of social support for the poor to help them escape the vagaries of poverty. Safety nets designed to help the poor are also inadequate. Welfare programs implemented to help the poor out of their situation have failed to deliver any positive results. According to Rank (2004), social institutions should provide explanations and the possible solutions to the poverty situation in the society. Rank contradicts Carr & Sloan (2003) assertions that behavior change among individuals may change their poverty situation. This is because the social environment plays a significant role in the success of individuals within the society. Rank’s assertions support the critical social work theories, which assume that poverty is the result of social oppression and injustices common in capitalistic societies. Additionally, Rank notes that high levels of poverty may lead to an increase in incidences of crime, and hence contribute towards a breakdown of societal values of justice, liberty and equality.

Blank (2003) examines the factors that contribute to high poverty levels among individuals. She identifies sex factors, which include structural causes, human capital issues, economic underdevelopment, capitalism issues, inadequacy of welfare programs, and characteristics of poor individuals. All of the six factors explain an aspect related to poverty, some encompassing factors outlined by other scholars such as Rank and Carr & Sloan. Blank (2003) asserts that poverty can be reduced by expanding markets to poor regions, giving the poor incentives to increase production. This includes areas in the U.S. that are currently under the effects of economic stagnation. Some of Banks assertions echo those of other aforementioned scholars. For instance, structural causes are identified as one of the major causes of poverty. Blank (2003) also attributes poverty to the characteristics of the poor, a factor established by Carr & Sloan.


Blank, R. M. (2003). Selecting among anti-poverty policies: Can an economist be both critical     and caring? Review of Social Economy, 61(4), 447-469.

Carr, S., & Sloan, T. (Eds.) (2003). Poverty and Psychology: From Global Perspective to Local   Practice. New York: Kluwer Academic.

Rank, M. R. (2004). One nation, underprivaleged. Why American poverty affects us all. New      York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogowski, S. (2013). Critical social work with children and families: Theory, context and            practice. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.