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Critical Social Theory in Nursing

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Critical social theory refers to the study of differences between people as related to socially determined status, such as socioeconomics. As applied to the medical world, this social theory speculates about why certain groups of people are predisposed to physical ailments and deficiencies. The goal of critical social theory within nursing teaching and practice is to identify and reduce socially related health disparities between patients.


The origin of critical social theory can be traced to the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. Researchers and theorists at the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt began to posit the idea that societal divisions and classes is not a naturally occurring structure, but rather historically based. In other words, social class is determined and set by events that have happened in the past. The assumption of these critical social theory researchers was that these divisions were kept in place to support the dominant group of any given society.

Critical Social Theory Nursing Science

The ideas at the origin of critical social theory can be connected to the medical field in different ways. In nursing science, the divisions between classes as described by critical social theory are expanded to include health problems, or vulnerabilities to health problems, that specific groups exhibit. Critical social theory in nursing does not attribute health vulnerabilities to the internal characteristics of a specific group, such as ethnicity, and rather attributes these vulnerabilities to external social factors.

Health Problems and Socioeconomic Factors

Eliminating socially derived assumptions about people groups within nursing science involves looking at the broader picture of health care and access to health care. An inability to access regular health care as a result of socioeconomic status can mean a lack of access to preventative measures. This can result in the onset of preventable disease and sickness at higher rates for specific demographics. For instance, many health difficulties can be traced back to a lack of access to good nutrition, which can be directly related to socioeconomic status.

Reduction of Inequality through Critical Social Theory in Nursing Science

The goal of critical social theory in nursing science education, practice and research is to establish a clear distinction between the false, socially derived assumptions that often are attached to marginalized groups and the real disadvantages and class structure that exists as a result of societal hierarchies. Once this distinction is established, nurses can work toward an actionable solution to amend these disparities. The theory also provides a framework for nursing science professionals to investigate any practices of inequality within the health care system that result from embedded assumptions. Through critical social theory, assumptions and stereotypes can be shattered and practices that reinforce inequality can be eliminated.


Nurses can use critical social theory to expose and reduce communication failures that result from assumptions and cultural misunderstandings between health care staff and patients. Reducing these communication breakdowns is a large part of building capacity for the equitable treatment of all patients, regardless of social status related to socioeconomics, ethnicity, age or gender.