Dissertation Toolkit: A Lens for Critical Reading

Getting to grips with the literature on your topic is one of the earliest stages of the dissertation. Among other things, the existing scholarship helps you explore different perspectives, interpret your findings, build your own argument and position yourself in a debate. Immersing yourself in the literature is a great way to get to know the subject, but it can also be overwhelming – you can become so swamping with what everyone else has ever said on the topic that there’s no room for you to know what you think!

The danger here is that you can become too descriptive. In losing your own unique perspective, the literature review can just become a collage of what other people have said. You end up just describing what your reader can go read for themselves if they want, and not adding much of yourself. It’s your dissertation and yours is the voice we’re interested in, so avoid it becoming a catalogue of ‘Scholar X says this, Scholar Y says that’, and foreground your own views!

In this post, we’ll look at how you can read with an active and critical eye, questioning what you read so that you don’t lose sight of your own agenda. We’ll look at three things to bear in mind about critical reading:

  1. Evaluating research on its own terms – testing its validity
  2. Understanding research in relation to other scholarship- its place in the debate
  3. Critiquing research in relation to what you want to do – its relevance and usefulness

1/ In the first place, critical reading means taking a journal article or book etc and asking specific questions about it on its own to evaluate its validity. This is tricky – you have to have a good understanding of things like research methodology to answer questions like ‘was the sample size large enough?’ or ‘was the use of this theory appropriate?’ It’s important to remember that while you need to critique each source you’re using to test its quality, you’re not necessarily looking to find fault with it. Agreeing with it is as critical a standpoint as disagreeing. And it’s not black and white- you might be less convinced by one aspect, but still find valuable elements elsewhere.

2/ Of course, you can only read one thing at a time. However, what you’re also doing is contributing each thing you read to your own mental map of the literature. If you read each source in isolation, without thinking about how it relates to everything else you’ve read, it will again lead you to very descriptive writing, which doesn’t build an argument or position you in a debate, but instead just catalogues each text in turn. Think about how each text relates to others – Can you see scholars who disagree with each other, or take up positions which are mutually exclusive? Can you see clusters of scholars who agree with each other- a school of thought? Can you track the development of an idea over time, seeing how it’s been refined or adapted for other contexts? Can you see scholars approaching the same topic from different perspectives, perhaps different subject backgrounds? Are these approaches complementary?

3/ Finally, you need to remember your own agenda. Academic writing is by nature very persuasive. It’s easy to get sucked into the agenda of the scholar writing a particular article or book – for them, this is the most important thing you can read on the topic. Of course it is – to them! But they’re not writing to help you solve your dissertation question, they’ve got their own agenda which may or may not be useful to you. So try to keep in mind your own research aim when reading – yes, the information may well be interesting, but is it relevant or useful to you? This is no reflection on the research itself – it may be the best journal article in the world on that topic, but if it doesn’t help you further your research goals, then it’s not relevant!

 Your note-taking strategies can also help to support this kind of critical reading. Instead of copying down or highlighting what the text says (it’ll still be there, so there is often little need to ‘capture’ the text in this way!) think about how you can use your notes to respond to the text in the three ways described above, whether it’s annotating your response in the margin, devising a system of note-taking that provides you space to look at all three aspects, or even the folders or categories (keywords and tags) that you’re saving the information in!

We’ve developed a resource that might help you think of the kinds of question you might ask in all three categories, which you can download here: Three Domains of Critical Reading

Posted by Helen


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