The Critical Turkey provides essay writing resources for the social sciences, and anyone who wants to hone their critical reasoning and writing skills, social scientist or not.
It goes deeper, though. On a more fundamental level, this website is about how Brexit came about, and what happened in the White House 2016 to 2020. It is about the Berlusconi decades in Italy, Bolsonaro in Brasil, Orban in Hungary, Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany; Murdoch’s media empire, flat earthers, QAnon, the deep state, the moon landings, the 5G masts, and Bill Gates’ attempt to microchip the world’s population. It is about what unites these right-wing populists, media moguls and conspiracy theories: an offering of superficial explanations to complex phenomena and simplistic solutions to difficult problems. It is about the misogyny that all too often comes with it, the xenophobia, thinly veiled racism, the LGBTQ-phobia and general misanthropy it carries. These regression merchants try to indoctrinate populations the world over to think in simplistic black-and-white categories, and to see things from their own limited perspectives only. In short, they propagate a specific method of thinking and perceiving of the world, an epistemology of lazy self-centredness. And for some reason, this epistemology has been gaining traction in the world.
This website is only a small drop in a large ocean, but in its own little way, an attempt to set against this what we do best in the social sciences. We do engage with the complexity of the world. We do look at the different sides of the story and different perspectives, promoting inclusivity along the lines of class, race, gender, LGBTQ+ and other identities. We critically question institutions and inequalities. We use evidence to back up our claims. And we build our analyses and arguments on solid reasoning. This website provides practical tips and tricks for how to implement this effectively and successfully in social science writing.
Oh, and let’s normalise decolonisation. It’s a bit odd to still have so many biases built into our disciplines so deep into the 21st century, and even odder for some to resist this removal of biases. Decolonisation is not just a political project, it’s also a question of good scholarship.
It’s what we social scientists do best when we’re at our best. If you think anything published on this site does not live up to this ambition, or more could be done in terms of its inclusivity objective, do let me know.
The Critical Turkey
The critical turkey is a play on Karl Popper’s metaphor of the inductivist turkey (himself expanding on an idea first used by Bertrand Russell), which warns us against the pitfalls of (uncritical) inductive reasoning. The inductivist turkey grew up on a farm where it would be fed by its human masters every morning at 9am. After this happened for an extended period of time and throughout the different months of the year, come rain or shine (in a research sense, after the turkey had collected a fair amount of data, and made sure it applied under differing circumstances) the turkey finally came to the conclusion that this indeed meant that it would always be fed at 9am each morning. Then came Christmas. And we all know what happens to turkeys on Christmas.
The critical turkey would not have made this mistake. Using its critical reasoning skills, it would have questioned the motives of the humans. It would have asked what their interest was in feeding it, a turkey, and what the humans might get out of it. It would have looked at other evidence, maybe talked to the horses from the neighbouring stables, and being a keen researcher, might even have sought access to the books of the farm (good luck with that one though! The gatekeeper problem here is literal). After carefully weighing the different interpretations of what was going on, it would have concluded that it was not safe for it to stay with the humans. It would have plotted its escape from the compound, and pursued a life in freedom, joining a rafter of wild turkeys roaming the forests. Critical reasoning, in this case, would have been a life-saver.
Doesn’t sound plausible? Well, turkeys are smarter than you think!
The attribute ‘next-level’ is to some extent tongue-in-cheek. I cannot claim that the resources on this site are any better than what you can find in at least some other places. However, there is a certain ambition. I certainly try to make them as applicable as possible, and the resources try to directly respond to the specific challenges of social science essay writing as experienced in a typical university education. It is this responsiveness that I hope makes them particularly effective. There is also a sensitivity to the different grade levels, and how one can move from, say, a C to a B or a B to an A. In that sense, I hope this website can help students reach that next level of their own essay writing.
How I use this site (and how you can use it)
I use this site both proactively and reactively. The proactive side is mostly covered by the resources available in the PDF section of this site. These are how-to’s and essay writing hacks that I share with students before they write their essays. These resources establish the general parameters of good essay writing, and clarify expectations. The SPS Essay Marking Descriptor Guide in particular is an in-depth analysis of what makes successful essay writing, and what mistakes to avoid, based on our School of Social and Political Science School’s marking guidelines, but applicable universally.
The reactive side is covered mostly by the blogposts that address frequently asked questions. They are tailored to addressing specific problems that students typically encounter in their essay practice, and while blog articles in their own right, are also meant to be included into essay feedback. For example, if an essay I am grading has been struggling to use academic literature effectively and has instead relied too much on non-academic sources, a quick link to the respective blogpost that explains the do’s and don’ts of this can easily be inserted in the feedback commentary. This adds an additional layer to the feedback process, by fortifying the specific feedback given on the essay with more general advice of how to do well in a given aspect of essay writing.
This is how I use the site, and how you can use it if you are on the teaching side of things.
If you are on the learning side of things, you can use the site as a collection of different resources for your essay writing, and dip in and out of it whenever something seems relevant for you, or you need inspiration. Over time, more content will be added, and my hope is that the Critical Turkey will become a comprehensive one-stop resource for all the questions you might have on social science essay writing.
Adopt the Turkey
In case you want to adopt the Critical Turkey as the essay writing advice page of your choice, and for example link to it from your course webpage or website, I have created the banner below. One option is to copy and paste the image, and insert a link into it (https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/criticalturkey). Another option would be to use the following html code which contains the banner (most course or website interfaces will require you to switch to html mode or ‘code’ for this purpose. Size can be adapted by changing the width and height values): <a href=”https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/criticalturkey”><img src=”https://i.ibb.co/ydnS0LB/The-Critical-Turkey-Banner.png” alt=”The Critical Turkey Banner” width=550 height=157></a>
I have been both a Tutor and Teaching Fellow in Sociology at Edinburgh University (and a little also in politics and IR), teaching and lecturing on various themes and courses since 2009, and I am also Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Over the years, I have graded and given feedback on well over a thousand (potentially a couple of thousand – it’s not that I’ve kept count) essays, and talked to probably hundreds of students about their questions and concerns, struggles and strategies, ambitions and anxieties. Unsurprisingly, I’ve picked up a thing or two in the process. This website is where I share this experience with the wider world. And in the way discussed above, it is my own little contribution in the struggle of epistemologies, a little piece of epistemic activism if you like.
You can reach me with any comments, questions or suggestions at M.Booker@ed.ac.uk.