CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Guest Post: Critical Consciousness Impact Measures

September 29th, 2015
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In June, CIRCLE launched a new initiative to connect research and practice by hosting conversations fueled by views from the field. We were thrilled by the response to our first call for interest on guest posts about impact measures. Below is the first post in this series, which will include perspectives from researchers and practitioners during the fall. Please join us on Twitter and Facebook to discuss the content and implications, and keep an eye out for future posts and a culminating event for this series.

Critical Consciousness Impact Measures

Matthew A. Diemer, University of Michigan
Ellen Hawley McWhirter, University of Oregon
Emily J. Ozer, University of California-Berkeley
Luke J. Rapa, Michigan State University

Critical consciousness (CC) is a core concept in youth development, community organizing, youth participatory action research (yPAR), and organizations promoting social justice for marginalized communities. Yet, there has been little agreement about what CC is, as well as a variety of fragmented and conflicting approaches to assess CC. As youth organizations and programs also face mounting pressure to provide evidence of their effectiveness, it is essential to develop tools that assess CC that are both rigorous and reflect the spirit of the concept. Three new CC measures, deeply rooted in CC scholarship, are well-suited to assess the impacts of social-justice informed experiences and settings on diverse youth – while offering unique subscales that measure distinct aspects of CC.[1]

Originally conceived by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, CC refers to marginalized or oppressed people’s critical reflection on oppressive social, economic, or political conditions, the motivation to address perceived injustice, and action taken to counter injustice.[2] CC has been called the ‘antidote to oppression’[3] and empirically linked to a number of positive youth outcomes in previous research, such as political participation[4], healthier sexual-decision making[5], academic achievement[6],[7], and career success[8].

As an example, consider a high school that disproportionately suspends youth of color. Students with higher levels of CC would display more (a) recognition that school disciplinary policies are being applied differently across racial/ethnic groups, (b) agency to do something about it, and (c) actions to resolve the inequitable suspension rates, such as joining a student diversity group, participating in a protest, or talking with school administrators. In contrast, students with lower levels of CC would (a) fail to recognize the disproportionate disciplinary practices, ignore/minimize the underlying racism, or blame the students, (b) lack interest or feel powerless to do anything about it, or (c) avoid talking about or acknowledging the problem.

Until recently, no quantitative instruments were explicitly designed to measure CC, which is distinct from other forms of psychological and political empowerment. Three new and independently developed CC instruments assess youths’ thinking about social inequalities, their motivation to engage in action, and their actual participation to change perceived inequalities. A comprehensive review of these measures is provided in this longer essay. Each measure, as well as more technical information about how each measure was developed and validated, can be obtained via the following links and is referenced at the end of this post:

  1. Measure of Adolescent Critical Consciousness (MACC)[9]
  2. Critical Consciousness Inventory (CCI)[10]
  3. Critical Consciousness Scale (CCS)[11]

These measures were developed for and in collaboration with marginalized youth (young women & men aged 14-25, from rural, urban, and suburban settings) and youth workers, who evaluated the measures in focus groups, suggested item revisions, or contributed as participants while validating each measure. The MACC measures youths’ motivation to produce social change (sample item “It is important to fight against social and economic inequality”) and social action (“I am involved in activities or groups that promote equality and justice”); the MACC is available in English or Spanish versions. The CCI measures youths’ perceptions of inequality (“I think that the educational system needs to be changed in order for everyone to have an equal chance”). The CCS also measures perceptions of inequality (“Poor people have fewer chances to get good jobs”), endorsement of social equality (“We would have fewer problems if we treated people more equally”) and engagement in social action (“I have participated in a human rights, gay rights, or women’s rights organization or group”).

These measures could be used in evaluation practice, individually or in combination, as rigorous “pre and post” measures of how an after school intervention or youth-adult community partnership impacts youths’ critical awareness, motivation, or action. Additionally, they could be used to examine whether students in schools that emphasize CC (e.g., the Paulo Freire Charter School, schools with ethnic studies curricula) develop the ability to think critically about social inequalities, become motivated to produce change, and then take action. CC could be precisely measured and compared among youth who are vs. are not exposed to curriculum or interventions designed to foster CC. Whether youth receiving CC-promotive interventions display greater levels of school engagement, civic participation, or other indicators of positive youth development could then be examined. The specific subscales in these measures could more specifically identify which aspects of an intervention are most effective in raising awareness, increasing motivation, or changing behavior among youth. By providing precise measures of how marginalized youth think about inequality and become motivated political actors, these impact measures of CC have the potential to help us understand how to advance equity through fostering civic and political engagement among youth traditionally excluded from participation.


[1] Diemer, M.A., McWhirter, E., Ozer, E. & Rapa, L.J. (in press). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of critical consciousness. Urban Review. doi: 10.1007/s11256-015-0336-7

[2] Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed). (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans). New York: Continuum.

[3] Watts, R. J., Griffith, D. M., & Abdul-Adil, J. (1999). Sociopolitical development as an antidote for oppression—Theory and action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 27, 255–271.

[4] Diemer, M. A., & Li, C. (2011). Critical consciousness and political engagement among marginalized youth. Child Development, 82, 1815–1833.

[5] Campbell, C., & MacPhail, C. (2002). Peer education, gender and the development of critical consciousness: Participatory HIV prevention by South African youth. Social Science and Medicine, 55, 331–345.

[6] Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., Jaquette, O., & Marx, R. W. (2014). Missing the (student achievement) forest for all the (political) trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies controversy in Tucson. American Educational Research Journal, 51(6), 1084-1118.

[7] Luginbuhl, P., McWhirter, E. H. & McWhirter, B. T. (in press). Sociopolitical development, autonomous motivation, and education outcomes: Implications for low-income Latino/a adolescents. Journal of Latina/o Psychology.

[8] Diemer, M. A. (2009). Pathways to occupational attainment among poor youth of color. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(1), 6–35.

[9] McWhirter, E. H., & McWhirter, B. T. (2016). Critical consciousness and vocational development among Latina/o high school youth: Initial development and testing of a measure. Journal of Career Assessment, 26(3). doi:10.1177/1069072715599535.

[10] Thomas, A. J., Barrie, R., Brunner, J., Clawson, A., Hewitt, A., Jeremie-Brink, G., & Rowe-Johnson, M. (2014). Assessing critical consciousness in youth and young adults. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(3), 485-496.

[11] Diemer, M.A., Rapa, L. J., Park, C. J., & Perry, J. C. (in press). Development and validation of the Critical Consciousness Scale. Youth & Society.

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