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In a well-known essay on the study of international relations, political scientist Robert Cox made a useful distinction between what he calls “problem-solving theory” and “critical theory.” Cox’s distinction articulates something pretty commonsensical, which is why I assign excerpts from his essay in lots of different classes that have nothing to do with international relations.

Problem-solving theory “takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action. The general aim of problem-solving is to make these relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble.”1 “Problem-solving theory” is what we have in mind when we talk about the need to be “practical.”

In contrast, critical theory “does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing” and “allows for a normative choice in favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing order….”2 In other words, “critical theory” (not to be confused with Critical Theory as elaborated by the Frankfurt School, which is one specific theory of the origins of the status quo and the prospects for its transformation) is what we often have in mind when we talk about the need to identify assumptions and challenge “structures.”

More simply: problem-solving theory means figuring out how to succeed in the game we’re playing. Critical theory means figuring out why we’re playing it, whether it’s worth playing, and how we might organize a different game.

Cox’s distinction has proved especially useful when I teach my honors course on work. Now, like many professors, I prefer to believe that my students came to college because they wanted to spend a few years doing something like Cox’s “critical theory” (which, again, is not the same as Critical Theory—just in case some readers are getting either excited or nervous). I like to imagine they’re here to read great books, ask hard questions, argue about the meaning of life, and maybe even change their life, along with the plans they’ve made for living it. And like most professors, I know that, in fact, most of them are just here to solve a problem. Their problem is simple: they need a job. Their equally simple problem-solving theory is that to get the job, they need a degree. I might think the point of college is to grapple with arguments about vocation, exploitation, and “wage-slavery” (among other topics). They think the point of college is to increase their future wages.

Of course, my students suggest that the only reason I can say that the point of college is something other than getting a job is that it’s my job to say that (although they wildly over-estimate how much I get paid for it). They also suggest that college had better increase their wages, because they need those wages if they’re going to pay off all the debt they’re incurring (which they often underestimate).

And they’re right. As the economic reality of higher education has gotten grimmer,  I’ve gotten a lot less romantic and a lot more “practical” about my own work. As much as I’m responsible for teaching them to “think critically,” I think I also have some kind of duty to help my students find jobs. And most of them are not going to have jobs that involve teaching people how to think critically about their jobs.

But Cox’s distinction helps me here. It’s easy to get the idea that critical theory and problem-solving theory are squarely at odds, in the precise sense that if you’re going to do critical theory then you’re going to be impractical. But that’s not actually how Cox distinguishes them. For Cox, critical theory is also practical; it too is about solving problems. It’s not just idle talk; it aims to make a material difference in the real world.

The distinction is that problem-solving theory aims to win the game, while critical theory aims to change the game. Of course, the latter is more difficult, and at a certain point, something can be so difficult that it seems “impractical.” But I would like to suggest that there might be some simple ways to bring “critical theory” into practical contact with the “problem-solving theory” that generally dominates not only most students’ attitudes but most college courses.

In that course on work, I divide my honors students into small groups of people who are all studying the same or similar majors and pursuing the same or similar careers. At our university, this usually means I have one group focused on health care, another focused on education, and another focused on aviation (these being the most popular programs). There might be a fourth group of people who are actually studying some kind of liberal art or science and are not following a pre-defined career track. In addition to the common readings on the general topic of work, each group reads a book or a set of articles that radically criticizes their intended profession. The three pre-professional groups, for example, usually read Ivan Illich (Medical Nemesis3 for health care, Deschooling Society4 for education, and Energy and Equity5 for aviation). They discuss the book together as a group, and then each student individually writes a response.

The assignment forces students to think not just about “how to get a job,” but about the nature of the job they hope to get. More specifically, it forces them to think critically about the institution that will provide that job. When my students think about their future, they usually imagine themselves (accurately or not) doing the work itself: taking care of patients, teaching children, flying planes. The reality, as most of us working adults know, is that the time we spend actually doing the work can be much less than the time we spend doing the paperwork.

Institutions at their best enable us to do our work; at worst, they direct our work toward contrary purposes. When an aspiring doctor imagines herself in her career, she sees herself healing patients. When she starts that career, she finds herself serving profit motives and other institutionalized incentives that fill her time with a very different kind of activity. Students come with dreams; someone like Illich confronts them with a nightmare version of that dream, in which health care makes us sicker, not healthier; education makes us stupider, not smarter; and modern transportation systems make most people’s lives less rather than more convenient, while concentrating power in the hands of a few.

It doesn’t matter if Illich’s critique is right or wrong; what matters is that it is the most radical critique I can find. Students ought to confront this kind of critique at least once before they graduate. They probably won’t encounter it within their professional programs, where the standards are not those set by a broadly trained faculty whose cherished aim is to cultivate the independent life of the mind. Instead, they are the standards set by the institutions in which these students hope to work, institutions whose goal (often explicitly stated) is to cultivate compliance with a system—the system of medicine, of education, transportation, or whatever it might be. Institutions seek problem-solvers; not critics.

In the honors course, I make sure that my own profession comes in for the same kind of criticism. (And of course, it’s very easy to find radical critiques of the whole institution of higher education; Wendell Berry’s “The Loss of the University” is a good place to start). The lesson is not lost on my students: wherever our “critical theory” leads, most of us will still have to solve our problem and get a job inside “the system”—where we will find many good people trying to do good work despite the evils that a good critical theory can reveal. If students can learn to really grapple with that reality, which is far messier than the reality we confront either as hard-nosed problem-solvers or as idealistic critics, then they will already be playing a different game than most of their peers.

A Christian university ought to be especially invested in bringing critical theory together with problem-solving theory and making sure its graduates do not enter the workforce never having considered the forces that have made their work what it is. While a Christian university may train people for certain kinds of work, is not fully Christian if does not in some way subject the world of work to that radically critical theory called “the gospel.” I have my students read Illich and Berry not only because they offer a specific critiques of the institutions in question, but because their critiques are profoundly (though not explicitly) Christian. Wherever we can bring these kinds of voices into our curriculum, we will be helping to “take every thought captive.”


  1. Robert Cox, “Social Forces, States, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Millenium 10 (2):128-129.
  2. Cox, “Social Forces, States, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” 129.
  3. Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
  4. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 1971)
  5. Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (London: Marion Boyars, 1974)

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Dubuque, and Associate Editor at Front Porch Republic.


  • Nicholas Boone says:

    Such a simple and yet such a profound dichotomy! Thanks, Adam, for such a wonderful reminder of what we “go to school” to do.

  • This is amazing pedagogy, Adam. I’d love to hear some stories about student reactions to this exposure to critical as opposed to problem-solving theory.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Thanks Ron. I’ve had several students actually change their majors, though that’s not common. There are always some who get defensive. I think the most common reaction is something like “it never occurred to me that medicine/education/etc. could be anything other than a calling to heroism/compassion/service/etc.” If they go in with more open eyes, on the lookout for problems they might not have been able to notice or articulate, then I think the exercise is worth it. But look for a part two to this piece, where I want to talk about the constructive side of the coin – trying to get students to think about how these professions/institutions might be redeemed, if indeed they’re worth redeeming.

  • Maureen Perianayagam says:

    Hi Adam,
    I really enjoyed reading your analogy for problem solving theory vs critical theory. As a practicing nurse in a critical care setting, and a nurse educator in a Christian University, I always see the knowledge gap between the theory and practice in relation to morals. You are right about the education and workforce as it is always a game about ‘PROFIT’.
    Early on in my nursing career, I’ve learned that there are power players who dominate the nursing unit culture, and the others would simply follow them. In that self-centered culture, there is no room for morals, or ethical practice. For example, newly graduated nurses are given heavy patient assignments, and it will be justified as ‘learning opportunities’. An example of peer bullying is when a senior nurse on the floor would ask help from a newly graduated nurse or the student nurse and encourage them to be a ‘team player’. The interesting fact is the senior nurse would not help the newly graduated nurse or the student nurse with their patient care in return. Student nurses and newly graduated nurses are vulnerable for peer bullying in acute and critical care settings.
    As a nurse educator, I can see my students come with dreams of the nursing profession that is patient-centered, compassionate, safe, and ethical. When I take a group of students to a clinical site for practice, I see their faces with disappointment as they witness the ugliness, and unethical practice in a real work setting.
    I believe it is always important to give all the information to students at the time of admission into a program and give them the opportunity to make an informed decision about their career choices. I wonder whether the Christian educational institutions would provide sufficient information about actual practice issues, and challenges to the prospective students, thus allowing them to make an informed decision about their career choice.
    God Bless,