Literary and Critical Theory Crip Theory
Robert McRuer, Emma Cassabaum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0109


Crip theory began to flourish in the interdisciplinary fields of disability studies and queer theory in the early decades of the 21st century. These fields attend to the complex workings of power and normalization in contemporary cultures, particularly to how institutions of modernity have materialized and sedimented a distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” and to how subjects deemed “abnormal” have contested such ideas. Disability studies pluralizes models for thinking about disability: if a culture of normalization reduces disability to lack or loss and positions disability as always in need of cure, disability studies challenges the singularity of this medical model. Disability studies scholars examine how able-bodied ideologies emerge in and through representation, and how such representations result in a culture of ableism that invalidates disabled experiences. Crip theory, in turn, emerged as a particular mode of doing disability studies, deeply in conversation with queer theory. The pride and defiance of queer culture, with its active reclamation or reinvention of language meant to wound, are matched by the pride and defiance of crip culture. Crip theory, however, is generatively paradoxical, working with and against identity and identification simultaneously. Crip theory affirms lived, embodied experiences of disability and the knowledges (or cripistemologies) that emerge from such experiences; at the same time, it is critical of the ways in which certain identities materialize and become representative to the exclusion of others that may not fit neatly within dominant vocabularies of disability. Many works in crip theory focus on the supposed margins of disability identification as well as on the intersections where gender, race, sexuality, and disability come together. Crip theory, additionally, offers an analytic that can be used for thinking about contexts or historical periods that do not seem on the surface to be about disability at all. Cripping offers a critical process, considering how certain bodily or mental experiences, in whatever location or period, have been marginalized or invisibilized, made pathological or deviant. Within queer theory, crip theory thus perhaps has its deepest affinity with queer of color critique, with its attention not just to substantive identities but also to processes of racialization and gendering that pathologize or make aberrant particular groups. Queer theory, queer of color critique, and crip theory, moreover, often combine studies that focus on a macrolevel recognition of the complex workings of political economy (neoliberal capitalism, in particular) and the seemingly microlevel vicissitudes of identity, embodiment, or desire.

General Overviews

Crip theory depends upon the multivalent word crip, a reclamation and reinvention of the derogatory English-language word cripple. Cripple has historically been used to arouse pity or disdain for a disabled figure (initially largely disabled figures with mobility impairments). It is a word that draws attention to atypical embodiment in order to demean, diminish, or pity it. Reversing cripple’s negativity, crip as a reclaimed term has been used as a marker of proud and at times defiant identification, resisting attempts to diminish or devalue disability or disabled people. McRuer 2016 notes that crip’s meaning expanded greatly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in activist, artistic, and theoretical contexts. Lewis 2015 explains that crip was associated with beggars using real or simulated disability by the early 20th century, but that it also could be attached to individuals as a nickname. Negative associations with the term sedimented in the early part of the 20th century, particularly denoting “low social expectations”: a “crip course,” for example, was a course in school perceived as simple (p. 46). Lewis 2015 points out that crip is often used to reject phrases perceived as patronizing, such as differently abled. It has also been deployed since the mid-20th century affectionately and ironically as an in-group term. Crip as a form of identification in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was increasingly expansive: if the derogatory term initially referred to people with mobility impairments, it increasingly was claimed by a wide range of people, including people with mental disabilities, autistic or other neurodiverse people, and even at times deaf people. Many of the activists and artists reclaiming crip in its excessive flamboyance identified as queer in some way. When queer was reclaimed, however, it was importantly also used to understand experiences of gender or desire that didn’t fit neatly into categories of heterosexual and homosexual or male and female; it was in fact also used to analyze a range of situations, issues, texts, or histories not immediately legible as directly about “sexuality.” Crip, and crip theory, function in similarly stretchy ways. Davidson 2016 identifies the work of key texts in crip theory as “cripping consensus.” Hickman and Serlin 2018 analyzes the ways in which new crip methodologies allow for both making and unmaking knowledge about disability (unmaking, in particular, dominant ideologies about disability).

  • Davidson, Michael. “Cripping Consensus: Disability Studies at the Intersection.” American Literary History 28.2 (2016): 433–453.

    DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajw008

    Davidson overviews some of key texts that arguably mark a crip turn, or intersection, within disability studies, including work by Alison Kafer (Kafer 2013, cited under Theoretical Departures), Ellen Samuels (Samuels 2014, cited under Theoretical Departures), and Mel Chen (Chen 2012, cited under Disability Justice and Care Work). For Davidson, “cripping consensus” means challenging hegemonic notions of neoliberal visibility and attending to human embodiment in more complex ways.

  • Hickman, Louise, and David Serlin. “Towards a crip methodology for critical disability studies.” In Looking towards the Future. Vol. 2 of Interdisciplinary Approaches to Disability Studies. Edited by Katie Ellis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mike Kent, and Rachel Robertson, 131–141. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    For Hickman and Serlin, a crip methodology centralizes “subjective experiences drawn from the lifeworlds of people with disabilities” (p. 133), and remakes what disability means in the dominant imagination. They connect their methodology to feminist standpoint epistemology, theorizations of queer/crip temporality (see Kafer 2013, cited under Theoretical Departures), and the cripistemological approach that emerged in the second decade of the 21st century (see Johnson and McRuer 2014, cited under Cripistemologies).

  • Lewis, Victoria Ann. “Crip.” In Keywords for Disability Studies. Edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, 46–48. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

    Lewis traces the various historical uses of crip, from hostile and derogatory to ironic, reclaimed, resistant. The inclusion of the term in an influential New York University Press “keywords” volume demonstrates crip’s importance to disability culture. Lewis’s article makes clear that crip and crip theory have functioned in seemingly contradictory but generative ways: crip functions as substantive identification even as cripping is a force that potentially undoes or rewrites available languages for disability.

  • McRuer, Robert. “Crip.” In Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. Edited by Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson, 119–125. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2016.

    The inclusion of McRuer’s overview of crip in this volume on “the vocabulary of late-capitalist struggle” attests to the ways in which crip theory has developed as a critical tool for critiquing capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form. An expanded version of the entry appeared in Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance (McRuer 2018, cited under Globalizing Crip Theory, pp. 18–24). The original essay has been translated into Danish, Polish, and Spanish.

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