Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Critical Analysis

I often find that I write student feedback that includes comments along the lines of this "Lacks critical engagement" "Overly descriptive, lacks critical bite" "At this level a fully referenced critical analysis is expected".  Quite a few students will come to visit me during my office hours to ask if I can help explain what this means.    I must come out and confess that I'm a doodler.  I've been drawing this image (my drawing needs to get better..) of a scorpion for a while and think the visual metaphor of a academic writing that has logical progression moving down the segments of the tail until reaching the poison tip.  Harmless if you are prepared, wearing thick leather boots and looking out for them.  But particularly effective at delivering a sharp, painful jab (with potentially lethal consequences if you are caught unawares). 

 A good dictionary will give explain critical or a critique a something that pulls the work apart, examines it and determines if the elements make sense and if the whole comes together.

Or put another, simpler way; deconstruct, evaluate and synthesise.

A critical analysis will use published ideas from experts using reputable sources (that is not the first site you came across in a Google search) to consider the merits of the information being reviewed, but might also bring in other pertinent factual and opinion based arguments.

We tend to be more persuaded by arguments that fully consider the various perspectives and weighs these up to draw an evidence based conclusion.  This objectivity is a fundamental facet of academic writing.  I use this natty fish bone model to try to get students to think about structuring arguments that consider both sides (even where perhaps one side of the argument is weak or strongly against the beliefs of the author) and seeks to integrate key topics into a sequential grouping that may have some logic.




Other elements would include a moderated use of adjectives, the third person, the past tense, the premise that there is unlikely to be a definitive universal truth (therefore the use of the conditional tense and recognition that we operate in shades of grey, not the definitive black and white).

We tend not to attach much (any ?) weight to the authors personal opinions.   I like to be dramatic and say, straight faced, "I don't care what you think !" or "Your opinion gets zero marks" and see what kind of reaction this brings.  It isn't quite true, but a bit of puffery (knowing/implicit exaggeration) to make a point strongly I feel is acceptable.  The criticality (and higher levels of critical analysis) can be reinforced by subtle or careful use of words.  Instead of expressing "Anita Roddick used Body Shop shop windows to put out campaigning messages" which reads as a rather descriptive element a few choice words around the key ideas can make more telling argumentation.

e.g. "Celebrity campaigner, Anita Roddick"  (indicates some personal agenda)
e.g. "Roddick sold out Body Shop to French cosmetic giant L'Oreal in 2006" (sold out/cashed in ?)
e.g. "Whilst in the early days Body Shop was highly innovative with its ethical sourcing and premium positioning model, by the turn of the 21st Century the campaigning was ineffectual, the product offering widely emulated, it was surely inevitable that Body Shop would become just another mainstream brand" (critical time series perspective)

A couple of quotes I borrow from the Amazon website review of Anita Roddick's book

"Business as Unusual has its faults but it makes a thought-provoking read and shows that Anita Roddick has lost none of her passion for change. Her ethics may stink, but it's of peppermint, tangerine and cocoa butter. --Iain Campbell"

“Most CEOs aren’t fit to lick peppermint lotion off Anita’s feet.” The Observer


Campbell uses humour (DANGER, DANGER !*) to undermine in a very effective and very frivolous manner.  He applauds Roddick's campaigning passion, makes out that the book is interesting enough and then puts dagger to the heart by challenging the fundamental ethical viewpoint.  The sensual reference to various ingredients puts across an idea that it was not terribly important, rather frivolous, perhaps. An outstanding soundbite made with extra large gnashers (teeth).

Whilst on the other hand, The Observer alludes to a contorted biblical story of pride and arrogance (where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in an act of humility and supreme point making) and confers to Anita Roddick godlike attributes.  This Sunday newspaper would generally be viewed as having socialist or left leaning political perspectives.  (If I use "loony lefties" here, you can see, it puts me on the right and reduces the power and authority of the argument).  It is possible to undermine or reduce the credibility of a source. e.g. "The socially minded Sunday rag, The Observer" has the effect of clearly intimating the idea 'that they would say that anyway' and also in using a demeaning colloquial term for newspaper to challenge the authoritativeness or worthiness of the opinion.  Take out the word 'rag' and you get a more balanced form of words that critically identifies a likely editorial orientation (or bias perhaps ?) and rather than merely describing what The Observer said, with two key words "socially minded" a powerful seed has been planted.  This is just one example of how an effective critical writing approach might manifest itself, lots of small, yet significant points coming together. 

My English for academic purposes colleague, Karin Whiteside, kindly offered the following example of reporting the Battle of Seattle from her teaching.  Both appear to "just" tell the story.  However, word choice and grammar change the story dramatically. 

Report 1
   ‘The Seattle protesters made a motley crowd.’
         (Lechner, 2009, p268)
         ‘… this impressive crowd represented more than 700 organizations and groups.’
         (Steger, 2009, p117)

Report 2
        ‘While the battle gained a “global” aura in the retelling, most participants were from North America, and among them were union members, brought in by the AFL-CIO, whose main demand for limits on trade agreements could have been mistaken by workers elsewhere for a form of self serving protectionism rather than an expression of global solidarity.’ (Lechner, 2009, p268)

       ‘In spite of the predominance of North American participants, there was also a significant international presence.’ (Steger, 2009, p116)

Karin currently supports the MBA group with a number of tailored interactive sessions to help students understand what is expected from their academic writing for assignments, exams and the dissertation.  

In the academic world you may come across the following kinds of ideas; 

 'based on a small sample that has yet to be replicated' (question the integrity of the research, no one else has found this) 

'Whilst X appears to have made some interesting findings, the majority of researchers in this field have drawn alternative conclusions' (most people think this is wrong) 

'Research suggests Y and is substantiated by a rigorous methodology and a large sample size, befitting from substantial funding from partial body Z'. (Perhaps a suggestion that they have been paid to provide evidence to back up a position e.g. smoking is not harmful to health)  

Wide research of experts publications may reveal strongly held beliefs and/or partisan positions, which may be sufficiently important to identify for core theory.  (However, a short biography of each cited author  should not be included in text).  Examples; Porter's Five Forces and Hofstede's cultural stereotype models (seminal ?) have attracted a significant critical tail since publication (now decades old). 

The examples above also act as an illustration of how ideas can be interpreted and re-interpreted with relative ease.  Consideration of detailed nuances and the way ideas are expressed in themselves can provide ample material to work with.  But content is key, and where students tend to go wrong is not generating enough base material to work with (referenced notes).  High level critical analysis REQUIRES extensive notes on a wide range of relevant materials.  That's about putting in the research time in the library and using the elibrary electronic journals such as EBSCO, Emerald and Science Direct. 

*  Humour that is funny and clever and most importantly that WORKS is fine.  In many politically oppressed nations, the satirists and comedians can play a crucial role in putting across critical counter authority perspectives using the under the radar disguise of humour.  It can be both very powerful and highly memorable.  Unfortunately, often, assessed writing is not at all funny and can fall very flat.  Therefore the use of humour should be considered as a high risk strategy and generally I would advise students away from using this approach in formal university assessments.  Save it for social media - it will stay there for ever - but hardly anyone will read it and no one will care. (much - but take great care not to slander or break the law when writing publicly).  




This post is getting a bit long, but there are a couple of things I wanted to also bring to your attention.

This post has looked at unpacking ideas of criticality.  I have tried, via the use of a variety of examples illuminate what I understand as being critical.  It is already too long, but I could give more.

"Yes, Yes Justin" I hear you say but "What do you mean by analysis ?"


I think this needs another post.



I rather left the scorpion metaphor hanging.  You may know the story, in which case the impact is rather lost, but what if I finished by saying that by 2006 Dame Anita Roddick had given away her £50m+ fortune to charities she supported when she died from Hepatitis, a disease she contracted from a blood donation related to giving birth to her daughter in 1971, in the pre-HIV blood screening days.