Social criticism  

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Ill-Matched Lovers (c. 1520/1525) by Quentin Matsys
Ill-Matched Lovers (c. 1520/1525) by Quentin Matsys
This page Social criticism is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
This page Social criticism is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Social criticism is a form criticism focusing on social issues in contemporary society, in respect to perceived injustices and power relations in general.


Social criticism of the Enlightenment

The origin of modern social criticism go back at least to the Age of Enlightenment. According to the historian Jonathan Israel the roots of the radical enlightenment can be found in Spinoza and his circle. Radical enlighteners like Jean Meslier were not satisfied with the social criticism of the time, which was essentially a criticism of religion. The focus of his criticism was the suffering of the peasants. In addition, there was also a criticism of civilization for religious reasons, such as that which emanated from the Quakers in England. Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed a social criticism in his political philosophy which influenced the French Revolution and in his pedagogy.

Academic forms

The positivism dispute between critical rationalism, e.g. between Karl Popper and the Frankfurt School, dealt with the question of whether research in the social sciences should be "neutral" or consciously adopt a partisan view.

Academic works of social criticism can belong to social philosophy, political economy, sociology, social psychology, psychoanalysis but also cultural studies and other disciplines or reject academic forms of discourse.

In literature and music

Social criticism can also be expressed in a fictional form, e.g. in a revolutionary novel like The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London; in dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), or Rafael Grugman's Nontraditional Love (2008); or in children's books or films.

Fictional literature can have a significant social impact. For example, the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe furthered the anti-slavery movement in the United States, and the 1885 novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, brought about changes in laws regarding Native Americans. Similarly, Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle helped create new laws related to public health and food handling, and Arthur Morrison's 1896 novel A Child of the Jago caused England to change its housing laws. George Orwell and Charles Dickens wrote Animal Farm and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively, to express their disillusionment with society and human nature. Animal Farm, written in 1944, is a book that tells the animal fable of a farm in which the farm animals revolt against their human masters. It is an example of social criticism in literature in which Orwell satirized the events in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He anthropomorphizes the animals, and alludes each one to a counterpart in Russian history. A Tale of Two Cities also typifies this kind of literature. Besides the central theme of love, is another prevalent theme, that of a revolution gone bad. He shows us that, unfortunately, human nature causes us to be vengeful and, for some of us, overly ambitious. Both these books are similar in that both describe how, even with the best of intentions, our ambitions get the best of us. Both authors also demonstrate that violence and the Machiavellian attitude of "the ends justifying the means" are deplorable. They also express their authors' disenchantment with the state of evolution of human nature.

According to Frederick Douglass, "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."

The authors imply, that even if we begin with honourable intentions, there will be some who will let their basic instincts take control. Animal Farm portrays this nature through parodying events in real history. Given the right conditions, these events could happen anywhere. Take for example, a leader becoming overly ambitious, to the point of harming his people for more power.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens examines the inner soul, and shares with us how people are driven to the valley of human emotions, where desperation and anger reign, and what could happen afterwards if we let these emotions build up inside. Every human being is capable of becoming a ruthless, opportunistic being like Napoleon or Madame Defarge, if placed in the right place, at the right time.

Social criticism is certainly present in opera (e.g. The Cradle Will Rock) and other types of classical music, such as the Symphony No.13, called "Babi Yar", of Dmitri Shostakovich. Other musical expressions of social criticism are frequent in punk and rap music, examples being "Pretty Vacant" by Sex Pistols and "Brenda's Got a Baby" by 2Pac. Heavy metal and industrial rock bands such as Black Sabbath, Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Megadeth also use social criticism extensively, particularly in their earlier works.


Classical writings

Important contemporary works

See also



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