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Critical Consciousness (CC) is one’s ability to reflect and act on one’s socio-political environment. The concept is often viewed as a process in which traditionally marginalized and oppressed populations recognize and overcome sociopolitical barriers. Although CC was first used to empower traditionally marginalized populations, research suggests that people across the continuum of privilege may benefit from being intentional about their CC development, particularly in light of the contributions they may have for society. For example, among a sample of wealthy young adults, Critical Consciousness was associated with increased gift giving to social justice movements (Wernick, 2016). 


CC is attained in three broad stages: (1) Critical Reflection, (2) Critical Motivation and (3) Critical Action. These components represent a process by which people reflect on injustices and sources of oppression in their worlds (Critical Reflection), develop the motivation and belief that they can address these injustices (Critical Motivation), and engage in concrete ways to change those injustices (Critical action) (Diemer et al., 2016). 

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Our research suggests that as youth reflect on their purpose, they will begin to see how systems of oppression (ie. Violence, Exploitation, Marginalization, Powerlessness, Cultural Imperialism; Young, 2011), play various complex and intersecting roles in shaping the desired pro-social impact linked with one’s purpose. 


How does Critical Consciousness Inform Our Sense of Purpose?


Our research suggests that there are two Critical Consciousness informed pathways to developing the desired impact within purpose: Healing and Directing, which are not mutually exclusive (White, 2020). However, anecdotal evidence suggests other possible paths as well. Therefore, we are continuing to explore the relationship between CC and purpose.


Healing Pathway


This pathway posits that youth and young adults who experience adversity, marginalization, and/or trauma - often related to their identities or positionality in the world - were able to heal from these challenges with the help of CC and move forward to developing purposeful goals related to their CC. Youth first develop an awareness of the systems of oppression or other injustices that negatively impacted them and their families (Critical Awareness) and subsequently develop the motivation to address those injustices via their purpose (Critical Motivation). They develop the motivation to engage in purposeful activities after tapping into the "healing" powers of various communities, talking with peers and supportive adults, and participating in consciousness raising activities (e.g., attending protests). Moreover, they commonly participate in volunteer and service-learning activities (which often serve as emotional "outlets"), and they frequently try to help people with whom they share similar life experiences and identities. Eventually, these small actions morph into a desire for consistent contributions directed toward creating a lasting and sustainable impact (Critical Action/Purpose). Ultimately, through the healing pathway, individuals became more resilient, acquire a deeper sense of empathy, and gain newfound wisdom and purpose.


Directing Pathway


This pathway posits that CC helps youth and young adults develop purpose by providing them with a clearer sense of where to direct their prosocial intentions and how to use their talents, skills, and privilege to positively impact the world beyond themselves. First, youth and young adults - across the spectrum of privileged identities - increased their knowledge of systems of oppression, usually regarding a particular issue, and how those systems of oppression affected people in unjust ways (Critical Awareness). They increased their awareness through classes, documentaries, service learning experiences, etc. They also reflected on how their own positionalities and identities intersected with these systems of oppression, making their concern with these issues more personally meaningful. Similar to those who benefitted from the healing pathway, youth and young adults then develop the motivation to engage in purposeful activities (Critical Motivation) (e.g., volunteer and service-learning programs). 

Of note, purposeful engagement (Critical Action) enhances critical awareness and motivation in a cyclical way. Youth often become involved in activities and with organizations that sought to leverage privilege for the benefit of people who were traditionally marginalized and/or oppressed. An ongoing reflective process helps youth then decide how best to leverage their critical awareness and motivation, as well as their own strengths and skills, to work for social justice in a purposeful, more clearly defined way.

Key Terms

Key Terms:


  • Critical Consciousness: One’s ability to reflect and act on one’s socio political environment

  • Critical Awareness: The process of learning to question social arrangements and structures

  • Critical Motivation: The perceived capacity and commitment to address perceived injustices

  • Critical Action: The critical analysis of social inequalities, motivation to create social change, and action taken to reduce societal inequities

  • Systems of Oppression: System-wide constraints that limit people’s freedom and serve as restrictive structures of forces and barriers that immobilize and reduce a group or category of people, such that they are dehumanized and denied in language expression, education, and opportunities to be human 

  • Privilege: Privileges are unearned social identities, and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent. It operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups.

  • Marginalization: the act of exclusion, such that a group of people is confined to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society

  • Positionality: The social and political context(s) that shapes one’s identity, as well as how one’s identity influences one’s social relationships and outlook on the world


Ask Yourself...

Think back to a time when you personally experienced marginalization.


1.  What happened and how did it impact you?

2.  What did this make you realize about the world?

3.  What did this make you realize about yourself?


4.  How do you want to help other people who might be experiencing the same thing?



Example 1:


Consider the following example as a way to understand the components of Critical Consciousness: Students of color who understand the social and historical contexts of racial disparities in school discipline practices may feel more empowered to engage in action directed at raising awareness about or changing such practices. In other words, Critical Consciousness can be viewed as an internal psychological resource that can be used to both cope with, become aware of, and actively work to dismantle systems of oppression and various forms of systemic injustice. 


Example 2:


Marginalization is considered a form of oppression that happens at the individual, group or systems level. One prominent example is the Aboriginal communities of Australia that were excluded from society and pushed farther and farther away from their homelands as cities grew. The marginalization of Aborigines happened when society met the needs of white people and not the needs of the marginalized themselves. Thus, marginalization is closely linked to the idea of whiteness.

Why does this matter?

Why does this matter?

In students, higher levels of CC are associated with:

  • Clarity regarding their vocational identity, and commitment to their future careers (Diemer & Blustein, 2006)

  • Improved mental health and occupational outcomes (Diemer, 2009). 

  • Increased levels of youth empowerment (Wong, Zimmerman, & Parker, 2010). 

  • Healing (i.e., emotional, spiritual, and psychological wellness) from the challenges associated with racial, economic, community, or personal suffering (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002)

  • Civic engagement development in youth ( Malin et al., 2015).  

  • Greater school motivation and engagement (O’Connor, 1997) and greater resilience (Ginwright, 2010)

  • Increased engagement with critical awareness and critical action is associated with better academic performance over time (Seider et al., 2020)


  1. Diemer, M. A. (2009). Pathways to occupational attainment among poor youth of color: The role of sociopolitical development. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(1), 6-35.

  2. Diemer, M. A., & Blustein, D. L. (2006). Critical consciousness and career development among urban youth. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68, 220-232.

  3. Diemer, M. A., & Li, C. H. (2011). Critical consciousness development and political participation among marginalized youth. Child Development, 82(6), 1815-1833.

  4. Diemer, M. A., Rapa, L. J., Voight, A. M., & McWhirter, E. H. (2016). Critical consciousness: A developmental approach to addressing marginalization and oppression. Child Development Perspectives, 10(4), 216-221.

  5. Ginwright, S. A. (2010). Black youth rising: Activism and radical healing in urban America. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

  6. Ginwright, S., & Cammarota, J. (2002). New terrain in youth development: The promise of a social justice approach. Social Justice, 29(4), 82-95. 

  7. Kenny, M., Blustein, D., Liang, B., Klein, T., & Etchie, Q. (2019). Applying the psychology of working theory for transformative career education. Journal of Career Development, 46(6), 623-636.

  8. Lerner, R. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America’s youth. SAGE Publications. 

  9. Malin, H., Ballard, P. J., & Damon W. (2015). Civic purpose: An integrated construct for understanding civic development in adolescence. Human Development, 58, 103-130. doi: 10.1159/000381655

  10. O’Connor, C. (1997). Dispositions toward (collective) struggle and educational resilience in the inner city: A case analysis of six African American high school students. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 593– 629.

  11. Seider, S., Clark, S., & Graves, D. (2020). The development of critical consciousness and its relation to academic achievement in adolescents of color. Child Development, 91(2), 451-474.

  12. Wernick, L. J. (2016). Critical consciousness development impact on social justice movement giving among wealthy activists. Social Work Research, 40(3), 159–169.

  13. White, A. E. (2020). Purpose Development in College Students: Understanding the Role of Critical Consciousness (Order No. 27831021). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2403111841).

  14. Wong, N. T., Zimmerman, M. A., & Parker, E. A. (2010). A typology of youth participation and empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46(1-2), 100-114.

Young, I. M. (1990). Five Faces of Oppression. In Justice and the politics of difference (pp. 39-65). Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Pr.

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