Archaeology ALIVE logo
EARLY HUMANS

Critical reading:
Page 1 of 2

Critical reading

Reading is one thing, but if you read a hundred books and don't take the time to think about what you are reading, you are likely to have a very confused understanding of the topic. This can be quite common problem. All the sources you have read seem pretty confident in their opinions, and at any rate how can a student criticise a professional researcher who has probably published dozens of academic papers and books? It doesn't seem fair.

But this is precisely what your tutor does want you to do!

He or she will be expecting you to evaluate the books and articles you have read; not to prove that you have actually read them, but to know what you thought about them. Which authors put forward theories that you liked, and why did you find these ideas convincing? Are all the ideas you read about as convincing as each other, or are some more valuable than others? And if so, why? Which ideas did you not like and why didn't they appeal to you? This kind of information is what is meant by the phrase 'critical analysis'. In essence, can you tell a good idea from an indifferent one?

Of course you can't be expected to know as much as a professional academic. But that doesn't mean you can't make an attempt at academic criticism. It may help if you think of an academic publication like a courtroom. The author is the prosecution lawyer, the references and sources he/she cites are the witnesses and you are the judge. The question you must always ask is: do these facts speak for themselves, or is the prosecution trying to pull the wool over my eyes?

The table below shows some general things to look out for:

In an academic publicationIn the courtroom
Look carefully at the sources the author is citing. Are they up-to-date and by reputable authors? Are the witnesses upstanding and reliable?
Check to make sure that the author has accurately quoted or summarised relevant research or argument(s) Cross-examine every witness yourself. Does he/she confirm what the prosecution is saying?
Look for tell-tale words or phrases that indicate the author may be unsure of his/her ground Make sure you understand exactly what the prosecution's case is. Listen carefully.
Examine carefully any data that the author presents. Has it been correctly gathered? Is it reliable? Does it say what he/she says it says Examine physical evidence yourself. Call your own expert witness to challenge statements made by the prosecution.
Read carefully the author's own comments on the limitations of the data. Are their explanations of the data and how it was collected satisfactory? Listen carefully to the defence lawyer