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Staying in the Analytical

Does putting the 'goal accomplishment' cart before the 'knowledge formation' horse make for research programs that go up in smoke?

Motivated to create transformational change, it can be difficult for justice researchers stay rooted in the analytical (or the 'means') and not focus on the practical (or the 'end').

While reading the book "Thinking with Theory", I was having a lot of trouble understanding what was so radical about the methodology being presented. It was written by academics who certainly knew far more than I did so why was I feeling so confused?

A classmate described her "grumpy" reaction to the book as it 'wasn't as radical as the authors introduced'.


The difference between my interpretation and my classmates was that she was being analytical and thinking critically. (I wasn't... in case you didn't catch that).

After this experience and a conversation with my advisor, I came across the article "It’s Time to Get Serious About Teaching Critical Thinking". Here, Haber (2020) says "Research shows that elements of critical thinking need to be taught explicitly, rather than assumed to come along for the ride when thoughtful teachers run through complex material with students." This article seems to be considering the undergraduate level but I wonder about being explicit about critical thinking at the graduate level - when we're using journal articles and scholarly books to inform our research. I think a lot of us (i.e. early, wide-eyed graduate students) read journal articles through the lens of 'well, it's been peer-reviewed or they've earned their PhD so it must be true' and not from a critical 'why is this true' (from an epistemological standpoint) or 'how does this relate to___'.

The article describes how developing analytical skills takes years and training akin to a professional athlete's. Continuing this athlete analogy, becoming doctoral student would begin like the pre-athlete who has skill/good form (the undergraduate student learning to be a critical thinker/analytical) then, while increasing speed or strength (entering graduate studies), not being able to maintain that good form from lack of coaching (not explicitly being reminded to thinking critically about scholarly sources). Well-trained analytical thinkers can identify an author's underlying philosophies easily.

To further muddy these waters, I'm getting mixed messages on the meaning of doing research (which should be critical and analytical, right?). Take, for example, this quote:

“…doing empowering research is not easy. Research that aims to transform the people it is working with, or to challenge hegemonic power relations and promote social justice, cannot be simply and quickly achieved. It can involve hard work, frustrations, contradictions, uncomfortable reflexivity, reinforced power relations (as well as successes, progressive change, and satisfaction)."

Johnson and Madge, 2016, p. 77

There it is: "research that aims to transform". So, in this case, the goal of research is an end? To transform? To make change happen? Is academia tending towards the 'prescriptive'?

To my own research: the installation of more turbines in happy communities is not indicative of 'good' academic work. In fact, doctoral dissertations usually do very little to create change. They are teeny, tiny baby steps towards change.

Staying analytical, staying curious allows for wider possibilities in results. We're more open to a variety of outcomes when we aren't fixated on a particular one. Staying in the analytical keeps the horse strong so it can move the cart.


Haber, J. (2020). It’s Time to Get Serious About Teaching Critical Thinking. InsideHigherEd. Accessed December 2, 2020 from

Johnson, J., & Madge, C. (2016). Empowering Methodologies: Feminist and Indigenous Approaches. In I. Hay (Ed.) Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Ontario: Oxford University Press Canada.


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