What is ‘critical analysis’?
‘Critical analysis’ is a desirable skill in all aspects of your university work, but what actually is it? As Brown and Keely discuss, analysing critically is a process of deconstructing what you read, write and listen to in a rational and logical manner (2012). It requires you to move beyond describing and analysing to evaluating, criticizing and postulating on what you process. However, while you are encouraged to critique, your response always has to be informed and well-grounded in research and wide reading. Critical analysis moves beyond simple description of a particular topic into the realms of analysis and evaluation, as visualized in the diagram below:
As shown in the diagram, description and simple analysis must precede evaluation, which is where critical analysis lies. With your evaluative skills you must be able to ask yourself what all the description and analysis actually means, what it says about the author or topic and what its implications are.
Critical analysis is associated with a ‘deep approach’ to your learning, which means that you relate new knowledge to what you already know. It also requires the examination of theoretical concepts and ideas; comparing and contrasting issues and perspectives to challenge your own understandings and to speculate and seek out implications. Furthermore, you must be able to distinguish between what is evidence and what is an argument. This involves questioning assumptions, recognizing generalisations, and identifying bias in what you see, read and hear. Thinking critically helps you to uncover links across large and diverse bodies of knowledge enabling you to synthesize your own informed ideas.
Why is it so important?
At university, it is essential to think critically as it allows you to understand and analyse the evidence, ideas and claims within your particular field of study. Critical analysis allows you to have greater clarity on the issues and information you process. Academic disciplines are kept alive through constant reflection, debate and refinement of ideas. Critical analysis is thus crucial to the survival and renewal of all fields of enquiry.
How do I start to think and analyse ‘critically’?
In an academic context, critical analysis requires you to do the following in all your endeavors:
- Provide informed reasoning backed by evidence and ideas from trustworthy academic resources such as books and peer-reviewed journal articles.
- Identify context, background and/or bias that may lead to distortion within what you read and hear.
- Identify and question unfounded assumptions.
- Explain the significance and consequences of particular data, arguments and conclusions made by others (Drew & Bingham 2001, pp. 281 – 282)
Questions to ask when critically analysing information
Browne, M & Keeley, S 2012, Asking the right questions: a guide to critical thinking, 10th edn, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Drew, S & Bingham, R 2001, The Student Skills Guide, 2nd edn, Gower, Aldershot, UK.
'Mike Wallace and Alison Wray's book confirms that the answers that you get depend on the questions that you ask. One of the most important skills for researchers to acquire is that of asking the right questions, and they show that this process begins with identifying the questions that need to be asked about the existing literature on a chosen subject. Wallace and Wray demonstrate that critical engagement with one's sources pays dividends in terms of depth of understanding what those sources tell us. In addition, developing the skills of the critical reader also helps to make budding researchers into better writers, through the realisation of what works better and what works less well when communicating ideas and information. The book is written in a clear and straightforward fashion that is guaranteed to make you think, as well as encouraging constructive and engaging modes of writing that will improve your connection to your audience. '
Professor Graham Crow, University of Southampton
Praise for first edition:
A very clear, accessible introduction that will be invaluable to postgraduate students trying to engage with reading and writing in a critical way' - "R.M. Lee, Professor of Social Research Methods, Royal Holloway University of London