The Institute for Emancipatory Constructionism
Praxis: Theoretically Reflective Action


Praxis, in its simplest construal, means “theory plus action.” It indicates life practice formed from both reflection and action. The self, striving to transform the world creatively according to an emerging vision based on its own values, actualizes itself as it actualizes its vision. Because individuals' actions always affect other people, praxis is inherently political.

... In the Marxist sense, then, praxis is both practical and revolutionary as oppressed groups critically assess the world and change society based on their own class's interests, rather than uncritically absorbing the ideology of the oppressor class....

... [Paulo] Freire, whose perspective derived from both Marxist and existentialist thought, maintained that for the oppressed to become authentic selves they must fight not only for freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and construct, wonder, and venture. True knowledge, Freire contended, emerges only through restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful, critical inquiry with other people about their relations to the world. Therefore, he advocated that instead of learners receiving, filing, and storing deposits made by educators, learners should be allowed to develop praxis, an inventive and interventive way of life that encourages free, creative reflection and thoughtful action in order to change the world, even as the learners are transformed in the process.

Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2008.


Praxis refers to a particular philosophy used to guide and conduct research. Like action researchers, those who engage in praxis-oriented research involve the community or group under study in the research process. However, praxis is distinct in that its explicit goal is to empower marginalized peoples and help them challenge their oppression. Engaging in praxis is not a path for the harried researcher interested only in quickly collecting and analyzing data. Praxis-based research is a long process that involves establishing mutually beneficial relationships between the researcher and members of the community of study. Though the effort and time investment may be great, the payoff has the potential to be huge. By engaging in collaborative research, researchers may help participants acquire the critical tools to transform their own lives....

The theory of praxis is one of a few theories that push researchers to engage in action-oriented research. Other theories, including critical theory and feminist theory, also focus on marginalized populations. Feminist theory places women's oppression at the center of inquiry and focuses on ways in which women have been excluded from positions of power. Despite this shared focus on oppressed populations, feminism and praxis emerged from distinct theoretical origins. However, in recent years, some feminists have drawn upon the work of [Paulo] Freire to inform their own practice. In contrast, critical theory and praxis stem from the work of Marx and his followers. Like praxis, critical theory promotes human emancipation from all forms of oppression. Critical theorists vary in the type of oppression they focus on: some focus on freedom from capitalist oppression while others are concerned with freedom from racial oppression. All are concerned with freeing people from the conditions that disempower them. Freirean notions of praxis typically focus on working with the poor and uneducated to provide them with the tools to overcome their oppression. Unlike critical theory, praxis is primarily concerned with helping the uneducated emancipate themselves. Upon emancipation, these groups then help the privileged seek emancipation. Though critical theory and praxis share the same general goals, praxis tends to focus on one particular population and provides concrete guidelines on how to achieve emancipation from oppression....

The goals of praxis remain similar to those espoused by Freire and his followers. Praxis involves a commitment to challenging the status quo and helping people from marginalized communities understand their oppression. Although the research project may be used to accumulate data and build better theory, social transformation remains the primary goal.

Tierney, William G. and Sallee, Margaret W., "Praxis." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2008.

Dialectical Inquiry

The purpose of Marx's dialectical analysis of capitalism, however, was not only to describe it as a whole and in its parts but also to transform it through praxis, that is, practical action informed by theory.

Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2006.

Transformational Methods

The twofold purpose of transformational research (variously referred to as emancipatory, revolutionary, or resistance research) is to change practice for the better while also revising stereotypes, habits of mind, and deeply held meanings that guide people's thinking about social and political issues. Research that is done for transformative purposes is praxis-based — that is, it involves a dynamic interplay between reflection and action, between knowing and doing. Its focus is the intertwining of research and practice. Thus, the transformative power of research resides in the potential for creative ideas and social constructions aimed to reform undesirable but common social practices. The essential characteristics of transformational research are described as being subjective, relational, collaborative, interpretive, and performative.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2008.

Reality which becomes oppressive results in the contradistinction of men as oppressors and oppressed. The latter, whose task it is to struggle for their liberation together with those who show true solidarity, must acquire a critical awareness of oppression through the praxis of this struggle. One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings' consiousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.

Freire, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Chapter 1.

... men, as beings of the praxis, differ from animals, which are beings of pure activity. Animals do not consider the world; they are immersed in it. In contrast, men emerge from the world, objectify it, and in so doing can understand and transform it with their labour.

Animals, which do not labour, live in a setting which they cannot transcend. Hence, each animal species lives in the context appropriate to it, and these contexts, while open to men, cannot communicate among themselves.

If true commitment to the people, involving the transformation of the reality by which they are oppressed, requires a theory of transforming action, this theory cannot fail to assign to the people a fundamental role in the transformation process. The leaders cannot treat the oppressed as mere activists to be denied the opportunity of reflection and allowed merely the illusion of acting, whereas in fact

But men’s activity consists of action and reflection: it is praxis; it is transformation of the world. And as praxis, it requires theory to illuminate it. Men’s activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action. It cannot ... be reduced to either verbalism or activism....

Revolutionary praxis must stand opposed to the praxis of the dominant elites, for they are by nature antithetical. Revolutionary praxis cannot tolerate an absurd dichotomy in which the praxis of the people is merely that of following the leaders’ decisions - a dichotomy reflecting the prescriptive methods of the dominant elites. Revolutionary praxis is a unity, and the leaders cannot treat the oppressed as their possession.

Manipulation, sloganizing, “depositing’, regimentation, and prescription cannot be components of revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are components of the praxis of domination. In order to dominate, the dominator has no choice but to deny true praxis to the people, deny them the right to say their own word and think their own thoughts....

If revolutionary leaders who incarnate a genuine humanism have difficulties, the difficulties and problems will be far greater for a group of leaders who try (even with the best of intentions) to carry out the revolution for the people. To attempt this is equivalent to carrying out a revolution without the people, because the people are drawn into the process by the same methods and procedures used to oppress them.

Dialogue with the people is radically necessary to every authentic revolution. This is what makes it a revolution, as distinguished from a military coup. One does not expect dialogue from a coup - only deceit (in order to achieve ‘legitimacy’) or force (in order to repress). Sooner or later, a true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people. Its very legitimacy lies in that dialogue. It cannot fear the people, their expression, their effective participation in power. It must be accountable to them, must speak frankly to them of its achievements, its mistakes, its miscalculations, and its difficulties.

The earlier dialogue begins the more truly revolutionary will the movement be. This dialogue which is radically necessary to revolution corresponds to another radical need: that of men as beings who cannot be truly human apart from communication, for they are essentially communicative creatures. To impede communication is to reduce men to the status of ‘things’ and that is a job for oppressors, not for revolutionaries.

Let me emphasize that my defence of the praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reality may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the unfeasibility or inappropriate-ness of one or another form of action (which should accordingly be postponed or substituted) cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action....

Authentic revolution attempts to transform the reality which begets this dehumanizing state of affairs. Those whose interests are served by that reality cannot carry out this transformation; it must be achieved by the tyrannized, with their leaders. This truth, however, must become radically consequential; that is, the leaders must incarnate it, through communion with the people. In this communion both groups grow together, and the leaders, instead of being simply self-appointed, are installed or authenticated in their praxis with the praxis of the people.

Many persons, bound to a mechanistic view of reality, do not perceive that the concrete situation of men conditions their consciousness of the world, and that in turn this consciousness conditions their attitudes and their ways of dealing with reality. They think that reality can be transformed mechanistically without posing men’s false consciousness of reality as a problem or, through revolutionary action, developing a consciousness which is less and less false. There is no historical reality which is not human. There is no history without men, and no history for men; there is only history of men, made by men and (as Marx pointed out) in turn making them. It is when the majorities are denied their right to participate in history as Subjects that they become dominated and alienated. Thus, to supersede their condition as objects by the status of Subjects – the objective of any true revolution – requires the people to act, as well as reflect, upon the reality to be transformed.

It would indeed be idealistic to affirm that, by merely reflecting on oppressive reality and discovering their status as objects, men have thereby already become Subjects. But while this perception in and of itself does not mean that men have become Subjects, it does mean, as one of my co-investigators affirmed, that they are ‘Subjects in expectancy’ - an expectancy which leads them to seek to solidify their new status.

On the other hand, it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection which increasingly organizes their thinking and thus leads them to move from a purely naive knowledge of reality to a higher level, one which enables them to perceive the causes of reality. If revolutionary leaders deny this right to the people, they impair their own capacity to think - or at least to think correctly. Revolutionary leaders cannot think without the people, or for the people, but only with the people.

The dominant elites, on the other hand, can - and do - think without the people – although they do not permit themselves the luxury of failing to think about the people in order to know them better and thus dominate them more efficiently. Consequently, any apparent dialogue or communication between the elites and the masses is really the depositing of ‘communiqués’, whose contents are intended to exercise a domesticating influence....

Class conflict is another concept which upsets the oppressors, since they do not wish to consider themselves an oppressive class. Unable to deny, try as they may, the existence of social classes, they preach the need for understanding and harmony between those who buy and those who are obliged to sell their labour. However, the unconceivable antagonism which exists between the two classes makes this ‘harmony’ impossible.... Similarly, the harmony of the oppressed is only possible when its members are engaged in the struggle for liberation....

Men are fulfilled only to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world), and create it with their transforming labour. The fulfilment of men as men lies, then, in the fulfilment of the world. If for men to be in the world of work is to be totally dependent, insecure, and permanently threatened - if their work does not belong to them - men cannot be fulfilled. Work which is not free ceases to be a fulfilling pursuit and becomes an effective means of dehumanization....

Dividing in order to preserve the status quo, then, is necessarily a fundamental objective of the theory of anti-dialogical action. In addition, the dominators try to present themselves as saviours of the men they dehumanize and divide. This messianism, however, cannot conceal their true intention: to save themselves. They want to save their riches, their power, their way of life: the things that enable them to subjugate others....

... domination is itself objectively divisive. It maintains the oppressed ‘I' in a position of ‘adhesion’ to a reality which seems all-powerful and overwhelming, and then alienates him by presenting mysterious forces to explain this power. Part of the oppressed ‘I’ is located in the reality to which he ‘adheres’; part is located outside himself, in the mysterious forces which he regards as responsible for a reality about which he can do nothing. He is divided between an identical past and present, and a future without hope. He is a person who does not perceive himself as becoming; hence he cannot have a future to be built in unity with others....

In the theory of anti-dialogical action, conquest (as its primary characteristic) involves a Subject who conquers another person and ‘transforms him into a ‘thing’. In the dialogical theory of action, Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world. The anti-dialogical, dominating ‘I’ transforms the dominated, conquered ‘thou’ into a mere ‘it’ in Martin Buber’s phraseology. The dialogical T, however, knows that it is precisely the ‘thou’ (‘not I’) which has called forth his own existence. He also knows that the ‘thou’ which calls forth his own existence in turn constitutes an ‘I’ which has in his ‘I’ its ‘thou’. The ‘I’ and the ‘thou’ thus become, in the dialectic of these relationships, two’ thous’ which become two’ Is’.

The dialogical theory of action does not involve a Subject, who dominates by virtue of conquest, and a dominated object. Instead, there are Subjects who meet to name the world in order to transform it. If at a certain historical moment the oppressed, for the reasons previously described, are unable to fulfil their vocation as Subjects, the posing of their very oppression as a problem (which always involves some form of action) will help them achieve this vocation.

This work deals with a very obvious truth: just as the oppressor, in order to oppress, needs a theory of oppressive action, so the oppressed, in order to become free, also need a theory of action.

The oppressor elaborates his theory of action without the people, for he stands against them. Nor can the people - as long as they are crushed and oppressed, internalizing the image of the oppressor - construct by themselves the theory of their liberating action. Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders - in their communion, in their praxis can this theory be built.

Freire, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Excerpted from chapter 4.

We can now see the full quality of praxis. It is not simply action based on reflection. It is action which embodies certain qualities. These include a commitment to human well being and the search for truth, and respect for others. It is the action of people who are free, who are able to act for themselves. Moreover, praxis is always risky. It requires that a person "makes a wise and prudent practical judgement about how to act in this situation."

Carr, Wilfred and Kemmis, Stephen. Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research. London. The Falmer Press. 1986. Page 190. Quoted by Smith, Mark K. Praxis: An Introduction to the Idea Plus an Annotated Booklist. Website. 1999. Retrieved on June 5, 2009.

Time does not, of course, stand still. Just as Nature does not like a vacuum, so the human mind rebels against a void, against a "forgetting" of THEORY, against a retrogression in history, both as "past" and present, and a stifling of what is first TO BE. Because of this elemental and compelling need from the MOVEMENT from practice itself, we must expose the current reduction of Marx's concept of PRAXIS to the "practice," i.e., the carrying out, by the rank and file, of the "theory," i.e., the Party line that the leadership, the intellectuals, have elaborated FOR them.

This is not a "translation" of the word praxis, it is a perversion. The fatal character of this MIS-interpretation of "praxis" is more relevant for our day than for that of Marx--when he was alive to work out a revolutionary alternative and thereby discover a whole new continent of theory--Historical Materialism. We must consider anew the historic period in which Marx lived AS HE SAW IT....

Though the class nature of capitalist society is decisive, Marx did not limit his analysis of subjectivity to the difference between petty-bourgeois, egotistic subjectivity and proletarian, social subjectivity. Indeed, he insisted that "human activity itself" was "OBJECTIVE" (Marx's emphasis). Marx defined PRAXIS as "revolutionary, critical-practical activity." Put concisely, Marx's great discovery--Historical Materialism--illuminated the whole of society as well as its transformation.

... Praxis has many forms and each and every one is dialectical--develops through contradiction. Thus, even when it is seen as no more than "material activity," i.e., alienated labor, it is this very alienation that produces the "quest for universality" so that class struggles at the point of production lead to political struggles and finally burst out as social revolution.

Dunayevskaya, Raya, "Marx's Concept of Praxis Today." Theory/Practice News & Letters. Website. Retrieved on June 5, 2009.

A general technique of sociopolitical action applied by people and institutions through the use of symbolic protest, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention, nonviolent action may also be called “nonviolent struggle” or “nonviolent sanctions.” Since the 1986 struggle against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, this technique is frequently called “people power.” ...

Nonviolent action is a way to conduct conflict. It is a response to the problem of how to act effectively in politics, especially how to wield power. In this technique, however, people and institutions apply societal pressures other than physical violence. Nonviolent action may involve: (1) acts of omission—that is, people may refuse to perform acts which they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law to perform; (2) acts of commission—that is, people may perform acts which they do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden to perform; or (3) a combination of acts of omission and commission....

Three broad classes of methods are included in the technique. (1) Where the nonviolent group uses largely symbolic actions intended to help persuade the opponents or someone else, or to express the group's disapproval and dissent, the behavior may be called nonviolent protest and persuasion. Marches, parades, and vigils are among the methods of this class. (2) Where the nonviolent group acts largely by withdrawal or the withholding of assistance, submission, and cooperation, its behavior may be described as noncooperation. This class contains three subclasses: social noncooperation (such as social boycotts or ostracism), economic noncooperation (including many types of economic boycotts and labor strikes), and political noncooperation (among them noncooperation with government units, civil disobedience, mutiny, and severance of diplomatic relations). (3) Where the nonviolent group acts largely by direct intervention, its acts may be referred to as nonviolent intervention (disrupting usual routines psychologically, socially, economically, politically, or physically). The methods in this class include sit-ins, hunger strikes, nonviolent obstruction, nonviolent invasion, and parallel government. Some of the more visible manifestations of people power, such as blocking tanks, fall into this class....

The nonviolent technique has its own requirements for effectiveness. These include sound strategy, wisely chosen tactics and methods, persistent action despite repression, and nonviolent discipline. Physical violence, or the threat of it, is excluded in nonviolent action, for it disrupts the general dynamics of this type of conflict.

The technique possesses special mechanisms of change which must be implemented if a given struggle is to succeed. When successful, nonviolent action achieves results through one of four broad mechanisms of change or some combination of them. (1) In conversion, the opponents come around to a new point of view in which they positively accept the nonviolent actionists' aims. (2) In accommodation, the opponents choose to compromise and grant some of the resisters' objectives, adjusting to the new situation produced by the conflict but without changing their viewpoint. (3) Where nonviolent coercion operates, change is achieved against the opponents' will and without their agreement because they have lost control. Nevertheless, the opponents still retain their institutional positions and hold to their original opinions. However, the sources of their power have been so undercut by the nonviolent means that they no longer are able to deny the objectives of the nonviolent actionists. (4) Finally, in disintegration, the opponents' sources of power are so completely removed that the whole system or government simply falls apart. This occurred, for example, with the communist regimes in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia in 1989....

Surprisingly, the preconception that this technique can operate only when both parties share common ethical norms, such as the Judeo-Christian heritage, still surfaces from time to time. Much contrary evidence exists, however. Nonviolent struggle has been widely practiced in diverse cultures of the world, including its use by Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Marxists, and people of other persuasions.

Krieger, Joel (ed.). "Nonviolent Action." The Oxford Companion to the Politics of the World. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001. Retrieved on June 27, 2009.

A form of action that seeks to effect political change through nonviolent means. The strategies of nonviolent protest include both legal protest and civil disobedience, the disobeying of or refusal to cooperate with laws thought to be unjust. Although nonviolent protest has deep roots in African American political activism, it is usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. King and other activists used demonstrations, marches, boycotts, sitins, and other forms of nonviolent protest to persuade public opinion, force desegregation through economic pressure, create legal challenges to segregation through the courts, and encourage the passage of civil rights legislation.

"Nonviolent Protest." Encyclopedia of African American Society. Thousant Oaks, CA. Sage Publications. 2005. Retrieved on June 27, 2009.