Critical analysis has very little to do with being critical in your writing. In fact, being critical can bring you completely undone! What you need to do for academic papers is read widely, compare theories with theories, and theorists with theorists. Different writers may – and often do – have quite different ways of looking at the same problem. The nature versus nurture debate is an excellent example. If one theorist proposed that biology was the only, or determining factor in human development, then a large part of the picture would be missing – that is, environmental, or learned, influences.
Your job, as a writer, is to identify the different theories pertinent to your question, and to evaluate these in light of research evidence. For example, there may be a number of prominent theorists who hold to a particular viewpoint. Their view may differ markedly from other theorists who have developed their own models to explain the question or concept under review. In addition, each ‘side’ of the argument may be supported OR discounted by research evidence. You will need to explore the literature, and weigh up the research evidence, from which you draw informed conclusions. Essentially, the process is an “… objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the theories and research findings involved” (Germov, 1996, p. 33).
While you come to terms with learning how to critically analyse your research material – not simply describe it – there are some questions worth asking as you proceed. Bear in mind that a theory is nothing more than one person’s explanation of a particular phenomenon. Ask yourself:
- How much confidence do I have in the study I have just read?
- What aspects impressed me?
- What aspects bothered me?
- Do other studies come to different conclusions?
- How does the theory/study/concept fit with what I already know? (Germov, 1996)
If you can address these questions to yourself during the writing process, you will be well on the way to developing and, most importantly, demonstrating your skill at critical analysis.
If apart of your critically analysis requires you to evaluate a journal article see how to critically evaluating research.