Pour me some of that sweet, sweet critical sauce

<img> ‘Motherfuckin’ Critcal Thinking – How does that work?InsaneClownPosse.jpg'</img>

A regular comment on students’ work from essays to PhD drafts is that they could improve by adopting a more critical perspective. Martin Booker explores it very effectively in his blog, Critical Turkey. He defines it as common-sense scepticism plus social science analysis. Critical thinking is at heart about developing your voice on the topic and finding what matters within it. It is evaluative, considered and objective. It minimuses what we have to take as read and maximises persuasion through argumentation. Should be simple, right?

So what can we tell students to actually do to get there? What tasks can they incorporate into their thinking? My answer is that you do this by asking questions of the topic. Robert Ennis (1993) lays out a combination of activities, abilities and stances that we look for as evidence of critical thinking: ‘1. Judge the credibility of sources. 2. Identify conclusions, reasons, and assumptions. 3. Judge the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence. 4. Develop and defend a position on an issue. 5. Ask appropriate clarifying questions. 6. Plan experiments and judge experimental designs 7. Define terms in a way appropriate for the context. 8. Be open-minded. 9. Try to be well informed. 10. Draw conclusions when warranted, but with caution’. These roughly divide into: develop your own position from the evidence, be aware of what you are saying and and assess claims independently of what is in front of you. Critical thinking is also traceable. Yourself and your readers can grasp why you arrived at your argument because you lay out the evidence trail that took you there.

In this post I drill down further to set out some tasks students can add to their toolkit and which show critical thinking at work.

The first set of questions/attributes are variations of ‘what is it?’.

  1. How can we categorise it. What typologies, taxonomies and distinctions apply. Are these categories coherent, consistent and logical? Who/what creates them? Where is it written? What are their limits? We often find that categories that are presented as scientifically derived turn out not to be, or are contingent, or are hybrids, or their content varies massively under the same label. Examples I deal in are: addiction, disease, money, capital, and crime, but they are endless. Often people claim to be just using common sense – ‘it just is’ – while in fact referencing a societally, historically specific and novel definition. The variable understanding of what ‘biological addiction’ as opposted to psychological habit means is one. We might think that it is obvious what it means to say grounded in biology. Yet what that means and where it is presumed to happen has changed a lot, from a kind of organic dependency to neurological  adaption. That leads us to other interesting questions about why it has changed in the way it has. The critical bit lies in not just assuming that the scientific lens changed because of some set of godlike revelations on the topic.
  2. Does it have many faces? Give things names or look at the different names given to it. Do positions on the issue have a name and what do they reflect? What is the FBI’s take on cybercrime versus the critical criminological one?
  3. Does form get mistaken for content? The FBI define the Juggalos as a gang. But plenty of groups have the same structure as gangs, but are not them. There is sometimes a wilful blindness there. Muslim self-help organisations get wrapped up with money laundering or terrorism.  Alcoholics Anonymous has the structure of a terrorist network, but it is not one.

The next set of questions are about the data and evidence on the topic.

  1. What does it look like in context. Sprinkle in some background data or statistics that give us an idea of the phenomenon you are examining. How common is this behaviour? What are the patterns? This will allow you to give a quick thumbnail sketch of the issue before diving into the detail.
  2. How is it lived. Get back to the people and the real lives behind the data. What is it like to live as a gangster, or in a place dominated by organised crime? Doing so adds richness and nuance.
  3. Why does the evidence look like that? Are authors making unexamined assumptions about differences and similarities? Why so? Why is the topic being mainly examined as a particular kind of problem? For example, illicit drug use as a social problem rather than an issue of consumer safety.
  4. Assess the credibility of the claims being made. Check for any assumptions or suppositions being made and check them against the research evidence.
  5. Attribute validity. A way of examining the evidence is to look at the the validity of the concepts being used by the research. For example, why one death comes to be classified as drug related, how those judgements are arrived at and what the process of attributing a death tells us about for example how risk is identified and accounted for.

The next are your set of analytical party tricks which get down further into why it looks the way it does, why it happens like this and if it helps us to think differently about it.

  1. What causes it/what is said about causes? Examine where you and others are making claims of causality or correlation and look at the evidence to support that, so you can elaborate on the causal processes you are examining. Look for the following: are the presumed causal factors the actual ones, or are there other factors involved; in what circumstances are these claims true, and to what extent is the cause univariant, or multivariant; finally, what the implications of these claims being true. This will give you a much more grounded and nuanced set of claims to work with. This is a great trick to use, as causality often implied in many documents without being explicitly examined. Consider: are there multi-causal factors to take into account, or is there another, hidden cause, at work? This helps generate hypotheses to examine and helps bring in wider sociological themes of historical change and societal development.
  2. Reduce it. We usually tell students to be wary of reduction and essentialism buy they are both fine as long as they are appropriate. Reducing the issue to its barest essences but no more allows us do other critical things like comparing across cases and between contexts.
  3. Decentre it. Globalise your perspective by decentering the West. The emergence of the BRIC economies and multiple global power centres has meant that global economic and power structures have shifted radically. This can be used to critically assess existing theoretical and empirical claims. That affects both our tendency to treat the West as a baseline, but also theories that treat the Global South as being without agency and endlessly pushed around by the US/Western Europe.
  4. Normalise it. This works especially well when studying criminal or deviant behaviour.  Can it be explained in the same way we explain normalised behaviour? For example, is illegal market activity much like the regular kind? Normalisation means not looking for a special explanation before we have looked for a general one.
  5. What is missing. Look for alternative explanations for your examples. For example, crime reporting is a big challenge. Some crimes are more likely to be reported and to end up in the data, some are not. This means that claims about the contexts in which crimes happen can be challenged.

Above all, live with it. All phenomena we study are multi-causal, multi-factorial, and have varying effects depending on where people are at. Allow yourself to live with the contradictions and uncertainties inherent in your field. Whenever you see statements guaranteeing certainty about anything, run like the wind. That includes especially those who make sweepingly certain statements about uncertainty, or non-existence. The most crippling conclusion drawn by some scholars is that because it is difficult to define something or know it, or since it is changeable and contingent, then nothing can be known about it and it does not really exist. That is not a scholarly life I want and I do not see why anyone should be paying me to say that something is impossible or undefinable. The difficulty and the uncertainty are the challenge and the fun. So get to it.

Ennis, Robert H. 1993. ‘Critical Thinking Assessment’. Theory Into Practice 32(3):179–86. doi: 10.1080/00405849309543594.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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