How to do critical analysis


One important skill that you have to demonstrate in your assignments is to be able to critically analyse pieces of work, whether they are published books and articles, or policy statements and presentations. Critical analysis is so important than it usually features high on the list of criteria for successful work. It is also one of the academic practices that produces the most problems for students. Why do they need to do critical analysis, and, more important, how do they do critical analysis?

In everyday life, we try not to be critical of our friends, colleagues or family. Criticism is seen as a personal attack, designed to make someone feel bad about what they've done. Academic criticism is almost the reverse, however. The convention says that it is never personal, but focused on the work. Criticising authors of work personally is not welcome, and for obvious reasons -- we do not know them as individuals and so we often jump to outrageous conclusions about their motives or their characters. This sort of criticism -- ad hominem criticism -- can take forms such as arguing that Freud wrote about sex all the time because he was kinky, or seeing Fraser's work as the hysterical outpourings of a pre-menstrual woman. Even if any of these personal characteristics were true, the main issue would be the arguments of these authors and how valid and robust they are.

Nor is the point of academic criticism to make people feel bad. Any piece of work can be criticised. There is no perfect argument, piece of research or policy. The main point of academic criticism is to point out problems and difficulties in order to do better. What actually needs to be done to make things better might not be clear, of course. You do not have to have some positive alternative to put in its place before you criticise particular pieces of work.

There are other reasons for encouraging students to do critical analysis, to do with the role of the university and the university teacher. It is important for students to develop a critical capacity to prevent them being persuaded or indoctrinated by particular lecturers. This anxiety affects social sciences in particular. Lecturers themselves do not want students merely to agree with them and reflect back their own views. Finally, being able to be critical is the last stage in several well-known notions of student development -- you learn from other people at first, and then you need to be over to find your own way forward after having critically reflected on the options.

Let us move on to how you actually do critical analysis. There is a powerful myth that says that you just somehow do it automatically. You look at a text, and suddenly start to see some problems with it. In practice, this sort of ease with critical analysis does develop as you gain more experience. Those who are able to do it immediately probably have come from a suitable elite cultural or social background where they have long become accustomed to being able to critically discuss matters is a calm and detached manner -- any matters. If you are just starting out, and if you have not come from such an elite background, what can you do?

The suggestion here is that you borrow some techniques from other critical approaches. In what follows, I will be explaining some very basic principles developed by particular philosophical or theoretical critical traditions in social sciences. These traditions are called things like 'critical rationalism', or  'critical theory', as we shall see. They are being developed mostly to be able to criticise pretty abstract theoretical or philosophical positions, and our aim here will be simply to strip out a few basic techniques. This will probably deeply annoy traditional academics with long experience in doing critical analysis at this abstract level -- but they are not reading this material are they?

Your task is to look through some of these positions and see if you can develop some basic techniques for the sort of critical analysis we are asking you to do. You will not be expected to read all the major works of Derrida and be able to follow word-for-word his critique of Hegel. Instead, you might be able to gain the first glimmerings of insight into what he means by 'deconstruction' and try out some of the most elementary techniques on chunks of  policy, say in sports development.

Step One -- really basic stuff to help you do academic critical commentary
Critical discourse analysis -- based on the work of Fairclough and one analysis of a management text, links to other approaches
Critical rationalism -- Popper and Gellner on pushing arguments to the point where they can be tested to destruction (falsified)
Critical Theory -- Adorno on identity thinking and Habermas on distorted communication
Deconstruction -- some really really basic Derrida
Evaluation -- some preliminary discussion on suitable techniques
Film Criticism -- how 'realism' works to persuade us we have learned something without thinking too much, and how we can criticise it
Ideology-critique -- focuses on marxist analysis. A few specific techniques but more to do with critical concepts and themes. Features Althusser and Gramsci
Persuasive Communication -- examples of persuasive devices in propaganda and advertising

You might also like to try out some arguments about philosophical issues in social science here and maybe listen to a podcast discussion here