Studying any social or political science, you will inevitably come across the idea of a critical analysis, a critical approach, critical thinking, a critical awareness, or simply critique. Indeed, the title of this website is a play on it. But while the concept of critical seems to be omnipresent in the social sciences, there is not always much of an explanation of what it actually means. This blogpost attempts such an explanation, and makes suggestions for how to integrate critical-related skills into your essay writing practice. I suggest two components for this, a common-sense-plus element, and a social-science-proper component.
In everyday common-sense language ‘critical’ usually means that we question someone’s statement or opinion, and are, well, critical of it. We point out the weaknesses in an argument, probe its validity, and generally don’t trust anything anyone says. Sounds mean, but for a critical analysis, this is actually a good starting point. And if we do this systematically (the ‘plus’ of this component), it can greatly enhance our writing. The point here is not so much to disagree with what’s being said (as maybe a common sense understanding of ‘critical’ might lead you to believe), the point is to examine an argument, to look at the different sides of it, and then come to an informed conclusion, one that either agrees or disagrees (or indeed agrees to some extent, but not entirely). The critical element here lies in the process of how you engage with the argument, not in the end result of whether you agree or not.
Critical engagement starts with critical reading. The point here is to not just passively take in and absorb and accept whatever someone is telling you (this would be uncritical reading), but to enter into an active internal dialogue with the text. There are some techniques you can use, such as identifying and reflecting on the main argument(s) of the text, checking what kind of evidence these arguments are built on, and asking yourself whether you find them convincing, agree or disagree, why, and to what extent. It can also be useful to think about the context in which the author was writing, and what might have been their motives, both in a historical sense, and in the context of whatever scholarly discussion they were taking part in. There are plenty of online sources that can help you with the details of such techniques, such as here, here and here. The decisive point, however, is that over time you develop a kind of filter through which you read, and ideally this becomes something of an autopilot for navigating the readings.
This comes easier to some than to others, and it is worth noting that previous education experiences play a big role in this. In some educational traditions, students are encouraged from an early age to think critically, while in others, questioning the authority of the book or of the teacher are strictly discouraged. If the latter applies to your experience, it might just take a little longer to internalise these practices.
The next step in this common-sense-plus approach is to not just treat different readings individually and in isolation, but to contextualise them with other literature. Quite often, it is only through looking at different interpretations of the same phenomenon that the weaknesses or the limitations of one perspective become apparent. What looks like investment in a community that creates jobs and lifts the economy to one person can look like gentrification from a different perspective.
This should then also be reflected in how you present these discussions in your essay, in that you don’t just rely on one source at a time, but bring it into conversation with others, integrating and evaluating the different interpretations that exist, as you go along.
A last point of being critical in the common-sense-plus sense is to be aware of, and critically examine, the trustworthiness of your sources. I have written about the peer-review process, and the use of academic versus non-academic sources in this blogpost. It’s important what kinds of sources you use, and how you present them.
The second element of critique is where the social sciences come into their own. When you read a paper that claims to follow a ‘critical approach’, employ a ‘critical perspective’ or ‘critical theory’, this is usually what they mean. If your essay question is asking you to ‘critically examine’ or ‘critically evaluate’ a topic, this is potentially also what is meant (although it could also be a reference to the common-sence-plus variant; worth checking with your teacher).
This social-science-proper understanding of ‘critical’ is about examining what kinds of power dynamics, hierarchies and interests are connected to a specific social phenomenon. What produced the phenomenon and keeps it in place? And how does the phenomenon itself then (re-)produce hierarchies and power structures? In other words, the phenomenon you are looking at can be either (or both) the dependent or independent variable of your analysis. This can range from big topics such as how the economy is organised into a capitalist system or how modern societies somehow ended up being divided into what we know today as modern nation states. Or it can be applied to smaller issues, such as social norms regarding body hair (and its very gendered nature), or the lack of seating options in many urban spaces (hint: in spaces that are designated as ‘commercial’, if you have to sit, you are expected to do so in a cafe, consume, and create revenue). Whatever you look at, a critical analysis always asks the power questions, and connects these examples to existing hierarchies along the lines of, for example, class, race and gender, how these hierarchies produce these outcomes, and how these outcomes then reproduce these hierarchies.
Other prominent examples include looking at the role colonial histories play for contemporary racism, and showing how these histories with all its implications still form the foundations of societies today (in other words, identifying racism as a structural feature of modern societies, not just as situational events, as critical race theory has done); or examining the use of language in political speech or in newspaper discourses, and the way it transports and embeds certain assumptions into our thinking that in turn give legitimacy to existing power structures (as critical discourse analysis does).
If you know your classical theories, you will not be surprised to hear that a lot of today’s critical approaches build on traditions established by Marx and Engels, in particular in their German Ideology. In their big-picture analysis, the ideology of a particular society (and by that they meant anything from religion to philosophy to science, down to specific ideas we have about how to lead our lives, social norms etc.) was determined by the power structures of society, and by the social class dominating it. The ruling ideas, as their famous quote goes, are the ideas of the ruling classes. You do not need to be a Marxist, however, to engage in critical analysis. You just need to apply a similar focus.
More often than not, such a focus makes for powerful analysis indeed! If you’ve ever had one of those lightbulb moments while studying sociology (or any other critical social science discipline), where suddenly a new perspective opened up and everything made sense, chances are that this was because someone applied a critical perspective. It’s a true engine of insight, and can make you question everything you learned at school. Maybe I’m slightly exaggerating here. Only slightly though.
What is your experience with critical approaches? If you have employed them in your essay writing, did they help you understand the essay topic better? If you’re on the teaching side of things, how do you explain critical engagement to students? Or what other explanations have you found useful? Do let me know in the comments below.
2 thoughts on “What does ‘critical’ mean in social science writing, and how can I be critical in my essay?”