Sharpening Our Tools: Conducting Medical Education Research Using Critical Theory

Teach Learn Med. 2021 Jul 20;1-10. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2021.1946401. Online ahead of print.


Issue: As medical education continues to grapple with issues of systemic racism and oppression within its institutions, educational researchers will undoubtedly turn to critical theory to help illuminate these issues. Critical theory refers both to a "school of thought" and a process of critique that reveals the dynamic forces impacting minoritized groups and individuals. Critical theory can be helpful when researchers want to examine or expose social structures for their asymmetrical power differentials, and subsequently act upon them to create change. Evidence: However, despite the repeated calls for more critical work in medical education, merely describing critical theory's school of thought has not forwarded researchers' engagement with these theories. Presently, critical analyses remain rare in medical education. One potential reason for the lack of critical analyses is that there is little guidance for how researchers might engage with their data and approach their findings. Implications: In this paper, we go beyond merely describing critical theory and demonstrate how critical theory can be used as an analytic approach to interrogate the experiences of minoritized individuals in medical education. Using three critical theories: critical race theory, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory, we provide an illustration of how researchers might approach their data using one of three critical theories. In doing so, we hope to assist researchers in better understanding the utility of critical analyses to illuminate sociohistorical forces at work within medical education.

Keywords: Critical theory; critical race theory; feminist theory; post-colonial theory.