批判理论是一种面向批判和改变整个社会的社会理论，与仅仅理解或解释它的传统理论形成鲜明对比。批判理论旨在深入挖掘社会生活的表面，揭示使我们无法全面真实地理解世界运作方式的假设。批判理论源于马克思主义传统，由德国法兰克福大学的一群社会学家开发，他们称自己为法兰克福学派。今天所知的批判理论可以追溯到马克思在他的许多着作中提出的对经济和社会的批判。马克思对经济基础与意识形态上层建筑之间关系的理论阐述极大地激发了它，并倾向于关注权力和统治如何运作，特别是在上层建筑领域。继马克思关键的脚步之后，匈牙利人吉姆·卢卡奇和意大利人安东尼奥·葛兰西发展了探索权力和统治的文化和意识形态方面的理论。卢卡奇和葛兰西都把他们的批评集中在阻止人们看到和理解社会中存在的权力和统治形式并影响他们生活的社会力量上。在卢卡奇和葛兰西发展并发表他们的想法之后不久，社会研究所在法兰克福大学成立，法兰克福批判理论学派成立。这是与法兰克福学派相关的工作 – 包括Max Horkheimer，Theodor Adorno，Erich Fromm，Walter Benjamin，JürgenHabermas和Herbert Marcuse–这被认为是批判理论的定义和核心。像卢卡奇和葛兰西一样，这些理论家将意识形态和文化力量作为统治的推动者和真正自由的障碍。当代的当代政治和经济结构极大地影响了他们的思想和写作，因为它们存在于国家社会主义的兴起之中 – 包括纳粹政权的兴起，国家资本主义以及大规模生产文化的兴起和传播。马克斯·霍克海默在“传统与批判理论”一书中定义了批判理论。在这项工作中，霍克海默断言批判理论必须做两件重要的事情：它必须在历史背景下解释整个社会，并且应该通过结合所有社会科学的见解来寻求提供强有力的整体批判。此外，霍克海默指出，如果理论是解释性的，实践性的和规范性的，理论只能被认为是真正的批判理论，这意味着理论必须充分解释存在的社会问题，必须为如何应对它们提供实际的解决方案。做出改变，必须明确遵守该领域建立的批评准则。通过这种表述，霍克海默谴责“传统”理论家制作的作品不能质疑权力，统治和现状，因此建立在葛兰西对知识分子在统治过程中的作用的批判之上。
Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep us from a full and true understanding of how the world works. Critical theory emerged out of the Marxist tradition and it was developed by a group of sociologists at the University of Frankfurt in Germany who referred to themselves as The Frankfurt School. Critical theory as it is known today can be traced to Marx’s critique of economy and society put forth in his many works. It is inspired greatly by Marx’s theoretical formulation of the relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure, and tends to focus on how power and domination operate, in particular, in the realm of the superstructure. Following in Marx’s critical footsteps, Hungarian György Lukács and Italian Antonio Gramsci developed theories that explored the cultural and ideological sides of power and domination. Both Lukács and Gramsci focused their critique on the social forces that prevent people from seeing and understanding the forms of power and domination that exist in society and affect their lives. Shortly following the period when Lukács and Gramsci developed and published their ideas, The Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt, and the Frankfurt School of critical theorists took shape. It is the work of those associated with the Frankfurt School—including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse—that is considered the definition and heart of critical theory. Like Lukács and Gramsci, these theorists focused on ideology and cultural forces as facilitators of domination and barriers to true freedom. The contemporary politics and economic structures of the time greatly influenced their thought and writing, as they existed within the rise of national socialism—including the rise of the Nazi regime, state capitalism, and the rise and spread of mass-produced culture. Max Horkheimer defined critical theory in the book Traditional and Critical Theory. In this work Horkheimer asserted that a critical theory must do two important things: it must account for the whole of society within a historical context, and it should seek to offer a robust and holistic critique by incorporating insights from all social sciences. Further, Horkheimer stated that a theory can only be considered a true critical theory if it is explanatory, practical, and normative, meaning that the theory must adequately explain the social problems that exist, it must offer practical solutions for how to respond to them and make change, and it must clearly abide the norms of criticism established by the field. With this formulation Horkheimer condemned “traditional” theorists for producing works that fail to question power, domination, and the status quo, thus building on Gramsci’s critique of the role of intellectuals in processes of domination.