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Critical Theory (Cluster and Certificate)

This program proposes a thorough introduction to critical theory through a structured, interdepartmental curriculum. Critical theory is encountered frequently in the study of politics and philosophy and has become an integral part of literary theory and cultural analysis. Over the past three decades, particularly in the United States, the term “critical theory” has expanded from its original designation of a group of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas) to a more generally conceived approach to study rather than a self-contained discipline. It entails reflection on the premises, concepts and categories used in different disciplines such as literary studies, history, political science, and film studies, to name a few. Critical theory can therefore not be limited to a particular field or even to a specific content. It is involved wherever methods and concepts are not simply taken for granted but subjected to a critical reflection in a systematic and rigorous fashion.

Critical theory is by nature interdisciplinary. Because it is a scholarly practice more than a body of theory or method, training in critical theory assumes the form of an apprenticeship more than it does doctrinal or methodological instruction. Providing students with that apprenticeship requires exposing them to its use in a variety of disciplines. The Interdisciplinary Program in Critical Theory (IPCT) is designed to provide this kind of exposure.

An exposure to critical theory is highly recommended for students of literature, philosophy, politics, culture, the visual arts, gender and race studies, rhetoric, and society in our post-colonial, post-modern world.

In addition to close ties with disciplinary departments and programs, IPCT works closely with university research centers to develop opportunities to further graduate training in critical theory, notably the French and German Interdisciplinary Groups, the Humanities Institute, and the Center for International and Comparative Studies.

Programs and events

There are many different ways for faculty and students to participate in the intellectual life of the cluster. Many cluster events, such as visiting lecturers and conferences, are open to all members of the University. Cluster seminars are open to graduate students across the University. We encourage all students, faculty and staff of Northwestern to learn more about our research and activities by participating in our public events, and by joining our critical theory group list (email Penelope Deutscher with your information to be added to this list).

Current activities include: cross disciplinary reading groups and a dissertation work-in-progress group, student-initiated research workshops, a workshop led by the annual Cornell School of Criticism and Theory graduate fellow, annual conferences, visiting speakers and workshops, and, in some years, visiting international professors who offer interdisciplinary courses which may be counted towards the graduate certificate in critical theory.

Who should apply?

Doctoral candidates from any field are eligible to apply to join this intellectual “home” outside their department. Past participants have come from the following programs:

  • Black Studies
  • Art History
  • Communication Studies
  • Comparative Literary Studies
  • English
  • French and Francophone Studies
  • German Literature and Critical Thought
  • History
  • Music
  • Performance Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Religion
  • Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Sociology
  • Spanish and Portuguese
  • Theatre and Drama

How to apply

Prospective graduate students interested in participating in this program should indicate their interest when they apply to their respective graduate programs.

Who to contact

Please contact the program directors, listed below, with questions about this program. Or, explore the Critical Theory website for more information.

For general questions, please contact the Critical Theory Cluster directly at

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.

Cluster Requirements:

Cluster fellowship students are required to take three Critical Theory related courses outside of their degree program. The choice of courses must be approved by the Director of the Critical Theory Cluster.

Certificate Requirements:

  • Complete five courses chosen from the list of approved courses, which is updated annually before the beginning of the academic year.
  • Courses for the certificate must be comprised of five letter-graded (A, B, C) courses authorized for graduate credit. Courses counted for the certificate must have a minimum cumulative 3.0 GPA.
  • No more than two courses can be counted towards the certificate from the student’s degree program.

Course Requirements (5 courses total):

All courses, past and current, that may count toward the Critical Theory Certificate can be found on the list of approved courses.

Foundational Critical Theory seminars, chosen from these generally defined fields (at least 2 courses):
  • Critical Theory and Literary Studies: Poststructuralism, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory in literary analysis and theory; the influence of psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralist thought on contemporary textual analysis; cultural critique and context-centered methodologies.
  • Critical Theory and Philosophy: Themes may include the origins of critical theory in Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche; the contemporary re-emergence of critical theory in the work of the Frankfurt School; and/or the poststructuralist thinkers such as Derrida and Nancy.
  • Critical Theory and the Study of Politics: The concepts of progress and power in politics and in the study of politics; the sources of modern political critique in the Frankfurt School and phenomenology; the critique of positivism in the social sciences; the critique of sovereignty, identity, and race; empire and post-colonial politics.
  • Critical Theory in the Global South: Includes postcolonial, decolonial, trans-national and intersectional approaches to critical theory. Topics may include plural epistemologies, forms of power, histories, aesthetics, and forms of critique; issues of translatability and untranslatability of core concepts; the study of violence, social justice, trauma and memory informed by critical theory in its trans-national dimensions; projects aiming to diversify critical theory’s canon; and/or the study of the significance of critical theory in the global south and vice versa.
Remaining Courses (3):

Students may request a course to count toward the certificate that is not on the list of approved courses by contacting