The Art of Analysis

  • What is the difference between being descriptive and being analytical?
  • How do you do analysis in an essay?
  • Why do you have to use theories, and where does your opinion come into it?

Suspicion is a key factor in being an academic detective. In your search for facts, motives and explanations, it is crucial that you be cautious and question the validity and credibility of the information your investigation of the essay topic turns up. ‘There are many stories in the big city …’ and your job is to determine which stories are believable and which ones have loopholes. Your suspicious nature is actually the basis of being analytical. With your detective’s magnifying glass in hand, this tutorial will uncover the basic features of analysis as they will appear in your essays.

When you investigate an essay topic, you can divide your information into two parts: description and analysis. Let’s use the example of building a house from toy building blocks. The finished toy house is a single, whole object, but it is made up of many smaller building blocks. In a similar way, an essay topic is made up of interrelated parts. All essays need their descriptive parts, but the analysis is the mortar which holds the parts together to answer the essay question.

Being critical: Knowing the right question to ask …

Lord Byron said that ‘knowing the right question to ask is half the answer’. This saying may sound a little confusing at first, but knowing the right questions to ask is really what analysis is all about. The tertiary essay has to do more than simply describe a topic: it’s not just a summary of your reading; you are required to critically question or analyse your material. Being critical doesn’t mean criticising just for the sake of criticising something. In academic work, being critical means making an objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the theories and research findings that are relevant to your essay topic. Such an approach is sometimes called critical analysis.

In practice, there isn’t much difference between the terms ‘analysis’ and ‘critical analysis’. ‘Critical’ is sometimes added to the term ‘analysis’ because it emphasises that you should question the validity of the information, research findings and theories you include in your essay. In other words, you shouldn’t just accept the information or argument of the authors you read; you need to constantly question—Why?— something is the way it is. Asking ‘why’ requires an answer.

You might ask yourself how, as a student, you can learn to do critical analysis. The best way to answer this is to continually ask yourself how each study, theory, fact, concept, definition or criticism you come across in your reading fits in with what you know about the topic. This involves comparing the alternative views proposed by the authors you read. If you do this, you are doing analysis. There is no instant formula or trickery involved here, but it does require a considerable devotion of time and energy to finding relevant information. You can only do this seriously by reading widely on your essay topic, and reading with a ‘critical’, questioning mind.

Why theories?

Theories are systematic explanations of certain events based on researched evidence. You will come across many theories in your reading for an essay topic. It is up to you to analyse how well a particular theory fits the evidence. You may find it frustrating that there are so many competing and opposing theories on the same issue. While we would all like to believe that the world is based on simple facts, things are rarely black and white when dealing with humans, societies, politics and power. Facts can easily be distorted. Theories help to unmask and uncover reasons which are not obvious from a simple look at the facts.

You will notice that theories may even directly contradict one another. This can occur due to the biases of the authors, the time period in which the theories were written or because of the philosophical assumptions on which they are grounded. Since our knowledge changes over time, the evidence upon which theories are based changes and so do theories. Theories are constantly being re-evaluated, modified or rejected. When you apply the theories of other authors to your essay topic, as well as describing them, you need to analyse them in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Again, you can do this by reading widely to find the criticisms made of various theories and then apply them to your essay where relevant.

Beware of common sense

It is not uncommon for students to wonder why we need theories at all and to ask whether it’s not all just a matter of common sense. Beware of the temptation to do this. Common sense isn’t as common as you might think. Once upon a time it was considered common sense to believe that the Earth was flat and the centre of the universe! Common sense will vary over time, between cultures and between people who have different experiences. The motto of the academic detective is to maintain what the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell called ‘the constant need for constructive doubt’. So, before you can believe in something, you need first to maintain ‘constructive doubt’, investigate differing points of view, and not suppress or ignore contradictory information or alternative views. Remember, the academic detective is always suspicious and takes nothing for granted or on blind faith. If you have an opinion on a topic, you should be able to give reasons why you hold that opinion. You should also be aware of alternative views and address the issues presented by such perspectives. Once you do this, your next step is to develop a reasoned argument in your essay.