Writing a Critical Analysis Paper

March 6, 2016 0 2064

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Basic preparation

As we have established in our previous discussion, the Golden Rule of essay writing centers on compliance with instructions. The better you understand your professor’s requirements; the better chance you will have of doing well. Knowing your audience and adjusting your presentation according to their demands is the key to success in all writing and academic work is not an exception. Once you’ve thoroughly reviewed your professor’s requirements, your next step will be to gain a deeper understanding of the assignment. This is why you need to classify your paper according to common categories in academic writing.

A critical analysis essay is one of the most challenging academic projects you are likely to encounter in college. Unlike a simple descriptive essay, instructors who assign papers of this nature expect you to not only understand the material, but also contribute your own thoughts to the discussion. Such papers tend to be most common among advanced levels of academic composition. In particular, they tend to be frequently assigned in philosophy classes and graduate level courses in various disciplines of the humanities such as sociology, economics, history and political science.

Identifying critical analysis essays

By their nature, critical analysis essays tend to require a great deal of preparation and you need to plan ahead to allocate an appropriate amount of time to this task. Hence, when you suspect that your next assignment could be a critical analysis piece, you need to review your instructions even more carefully than you usually do. To determine if your assigned paper truly is a critical analysis piece, you need to ask the following questions. (1) Does the professor specifically ask you to analyze a position the author is taking? (2) Do the instructions call for you to make your own argument? (3) Were you asked to propose your own theory or evaluate the findings of another author? If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, then it is very likely that your paper is indeed a critical analysis piece.

In light of the complexity involved in the task of writing a critical analysis essay, such projects tend to be narrow in scope. While it is possible for a student to read a 500-page book and write a report on it, a critical appraisal of such a book would require a doctoral dissertation. Similarly, one can review 10-15 different scholarly sources and incorporate them into the research paper. Yet, this is acceptable because the premises of both assignments permit one to engage with the source-material on a very superficial level. By contrast, critical analysis essays call for a detailed assessment of material limited in scope. As such, these assignments will typically focus on papers published in peer-reviewed journals, scholarly essays authored by distinguished authors or chapters from books written by highly reputed academics.

Preparing for analysis

Although the analytical portion of your essay will be an essential component of the final product, your critique needs to rest on a solid foundation. It is not possible for one to mount a cogent analysis of the author’s views without first demonstrating a comprehensive and a precise understanding of their position. Therefore, before you even suggest what the author whom you are criticizing could have done better, provide an accurate summary of their views. At least 30% of your paper should consist of an exegetical account of the text. Therein, the student should always take good care to avoid conflating his or her own thoughts with that of the writer whose work is being analyzed.

It is natural for us to form our own views of the reading as we familiarize ourselves with the text. It is inevitable that we will find ourselves drawing conclusions about the reading, even if we do not fully understand it. Thus, each time you find yourself forming an opinion about the subject-matter the author commented on, ask yourself the following question. Is the viewpoint I am contemplating a position the author would espouse or is it the belief I would have defended in his place?  To fully understand this critical distinction, you would be well-advised to closely examine the statements that the author identifies as their own view.

Commonly, they will accompany their claims with active verbs such as believe, opine, maintain, assert and so forth. However, due diligence must be exercised even when citing a claim featuring such claims as authors frequently analyze the views of their colleagues in their works. So, it is important not to confuse the position of your author with that of another writer with whom they are maintaining a discourse. To avoid the conflation of the positions of numerous authors, you would be well advised to look for statements that clearly distinguish the writer’s opinion from that of a colleague.  For example, the author may claim that Smith asserts such and such holds true, but some of their claims need to be refined, revised or repudiated altogether.

Before you begin an exposition of the author’s position, identify a few key claims that directly represent their position. As a general rule, quotations should be used sparingly in an academic paper, but this is a rare instance where quotations can pinpoint the author’s central claim. Although this is a necessary part of the writing process, your quotations should be as concise as possible. Avoid using “block quotes” and make sure all of your quoted statements are under 40 words long. Once you have identified and quoted the author’s thesis statement, provide a detailed exposition of their key idea.

This will be an interpretation of how the thesis statement is the center-piece of the writer’s main argument. Given that you will be quoting only one statement, the relationship between the thesis and the main argument is not going to be immediately obvious to the reader. Therefore, you will need to write at least a paragraph thoroughly interpreting the thesis statement and explaining the foundation of the author’s position. This paragraph will be the center-piece of the summary section of this paper. The remainder of the section should focus on the process of unpacking the key ideas you have summarized in the paragraph.

Analyzing the text

Once you have developed a thorough understanding of the author’s views, you are in the position to mount an effective critique. Building on this understanding, you will then be in the position to identify the key premises of the author’s argument. Under these circumstances, it will be possible to elucidate the logical structure of the argument you intend to critique. The logical structure of an argument includes premises and the conclusion they entail. An argument is deductively valid if the conclusion is true in the event where the premises are true. However, an argument is sound only if it is valid and the premises are true.

To determine if the author constructs a valid argument, one must determine if it contains logical fallacies. There is a broad range of fallacies authors may commit and we will not be able to cover all of them in this discussion. The reader would be well-advised to review Madsen Pirie’s, the “How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic” for a detailed, yet an engaging treatment of various possible errors in reasoning that occur in common discourse. Alternatively, introductory books on informal logic will also suffice for this task.

Nonetheless, it will be worth our while to go over a few very common examples in errors of reasoning. Ad Hominem is a commonly committed logical fallacy and such a form of reasoning is fallacious as it centers on an attack on the opponent’s character rather than the merits of their argument.

Premise 1: Bill Clinton is a philanderer and a hypocrite

Premise 2: Bill Clinton developed a Federal Direct Loan Program to help students finance their education

Conclusion: Bill Clinton’s Federal Direct Loan program is undesirable.

The problem with this argument is that the conclusion is not supported by the premise. One premise features an attack on former President’s character and the other merely describes a program he implemented. The conclusion that his program is undesirable is not corroborated by any of these premises. In effect, the ad hominem technique of persuasion is used as a decoy to divert the reader’s attention from the issue at hand.

Another similar example of such an error of reasoning is the genetic fallacy which features an argument where a conclusion is deemed false because the author is of questionable credibility.

Premise 1: The Heritage Institute Developed a policy requiring all citizens of a state to purchase health insurance.

Premise 2: Obama’s Patient Affordable Care Act features many key components of the policy devised by this conservative think-tank.

Conclusion: The Patient Affordable Care Act is undesirable

Again, this rationale is fallacious for the same reason as ad hominem is a fallacy. The conclusion is not supported by any of the premises. Instead, the person making such an argument assumes that Obama’s policy is undesirable only because it can be traced to a conservative source. A more plausible line of reasoning would at the very least provide a reason why a policy traced to such a source is problematic. This brings our attention to a subtler error in reasoning known as hasty generalizations.

Premise 1: Conservatives proposed a policy that we now know as Obamacare

Premise 2: All conservative policies are undesirable

Conclusion: Obamacare is undesirable

While this is a deductive valid argument, it is unsound. Given that the two premises are true; the conclusion is true as well. If it is the case that all conservative policies undesirable as Premise 2 states, it follows that Obamacare is undesirable. The problem with such an argument is that premise 2 is questionable because it is imprecise and vague, as most of such generalizations tend to be.

With these observations in perspective, it seems clear that there are two main ways to refute the author’s argument: to point out an error in one of their premises or to show how the premises do not support the argument. In other words, the writer is either factually wrong about one of the main claims he is making, or he fails to show how the facts he is presenting do not warrant the conclusion he has adduced.

Nonetheless, there are subtler ways to criticize an argument, even if we are forced to concede that the author’s argument is both valid and sound. It can be argued that although we accept the author’s conclusion in full, we can claim that he omitted important questions. For example, if the writer is explaining how America’s interventionist foreign policy exacerbates the problem of national debt, one may ask if he provided an appropriate solution to this problem. That is, has he explained how the nation’s military spending can be restructured. If so, is his solution thorough and precise? In that case, is it realistic or does it need to be modified.

One may even suggest that the author’s general approach is fundamentally wrong-headed. In light of that perspective, the critic may insist that the author’s approach to the topic is too narrow or too broad. For example, one can claim that the criticism of excessive military spending is too general. Instead, he should have focused on specific ways in which certain kinds of military could have been carried out more frugally. Alternatively, one could claim that the author should have had a broader perspective and explored various other issues surrounding the U.S national security. In other words, military spending is just one problem in a much larger issue that should have been analyzed in greater detail. The specific nature of the criticism you could bring up depends on the context of the material you are analyzing. However, the process of determining which criticism you will need to advance will require you to cultivate a nuanced understanding of the subject-matter.

Framing

Without a doubt, the summary and the critique are the essence of the critical analysis essay. Once you have completed that portion of the assignment, you can begin the framing process. Therein, you will write an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction provides the reader with an overview of the topic in broadest possible terms. When the reader reviews this portion of the paper, they know nothing about the topic. Hence, your purpose is not to immediately inform them of what the author’s position is and how you will critique it, but to simply generate interest in your work. Do not overload the reader nuanced statements about the work you are criticizing or insights into your argument. Instead, you should stick to the basic facts and rather general overviews of the author’s position. Always make sure that your introduction ends with a thesis statement.

The purpose of a thesis statement is to provide the reader with a clear understanding of what you have achieved in your paper. In a critical analysis piece, you may do that by briefly explaining what the author’s point was and what problems you have discovered with it. The concluding section of the paper will bear a close resemblance to the introduction. In the thematic respect, the two sections of your paper are the same. Both sections provide a very general overview of the key accomplishments of your paper. However, the conclusion generally tends to be more nuanced than the introduction because by the time the reader progressed to your conclusion, they will have read the entire paper. At this point, you can afford to delve into the more precise, complex and specific aspects of your paper. However, your space for this part of the project is always going to be rather limited.

As a rule, the introduction should only comprise roughly 10% of your paper and the same goes for the conclusion. If the paper was five pages long, the introduction and the conclusion can only be half a page each. Hence, it is important that you use language in as economic of a manner as possible when approaching this part of the assignment. Just as is the case with the introduction, your conclusion should always culminate in an articulation of the thesis statement. Albeit, you may slightly alter the wording or manner of exposition to ensure that your concluding statement flows well with the preceding statements in that section.

 

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