What is a critique?
A critique is a genre of academic writing that briefly summarises and critically evaluates a work or concept. Critiques can be used to carefully analyse a variety of works such as:
- Creative works – novels, exhibits, film, images, poetry
- Research – monographs, journal articles, systematic reviews, theories
- Media – news reports, feature articles
Like an essay, a critique uses a formal, academic writing style and has a clear structure, that is, an introduction, body and conclusion. However, the body of a critique includes a summary of the work and a detailed evaluation. The purpose of an evaluation is to gauge the usefulness or impact of a work in a particular field.
Why do we write critiques?
Writing a critique on a work helps us to develop:
- A knowledge of the work’s subject area or related works.
- An understanding of the work’s purpose, intended audience, development of argument, structure of evidence or creative style.
- A recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
How to write a critique
Before you start writing, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the work that will be critiqued.
- Study the work under discussion.
- Make notes on key parts of the work.
- Develop an understanding of the main argument or purpose being expressed in the work.
- Consider how the work relates to a broader issue or context.
There are a variety of ways to structure a critique. You should always check your unit materials or blackboard site for guidance from your lecturer. The following template, which showcases the main features of a critique, is provided as one example.
Typically, the introduction is short (less than 10% of the word length) and you should:
- Name the work being reviewed as well as the date it was created and the name of the author/creator.
- Describe the main argument or purpose of the work.
- Explain the context in which the work was created. This could include the social or political context, the place of the work in a creative or academic tradition, or the relationship between the work and the creator’s life experience.
- Have a concluding sentence that signposts what your evaluation of the work will be. For instance, it may indicate whether it is a positive, negative, or mixed evaluation.
Briefly summarise the main points and objectively describe how the creator portrays these by using techniques, styles, media, characters or symbols. This summary should not be the focus of the critique and is usually shorter than the critical evaluation.
This section should give a systematic and detailed assessment of the different elements of the work, evaluating how well the creator was able to achieve the purpose through these. For example: you would assess the plot structure, characterisation and setting of a novel; an assessment of a painting would look at composition, brush strokes, colour and light; a critique of a research project would look at subject selection, design of the experiment, analysis of data and conclusions.
A critical evaluation does not simply highlight negative impressions. It should deconstruct the work and identify both strengths and weaknesses. It should examine the work and evaluate its success, in light of its purpose.
Examples of key critical questions that could help your assessment include:
- Who is the creator? Is the work presented objectively or subjectively?
- What are the aims of the work? Were the aims achieved?
- What techniques, styles, media were used in the work? Are they effective in portraying the purpose?
- What assumptions underlie the work? Do they affect its validity?
- What types of evidence or persuasion are used? Has evidence been interpreted fairly?
- How is the work structured? Does it favour a particular interpretation or point of view? Is it effective?
- Does the work enhance understanding of key ideas or theories? Does the work engage (or fail to engage) with key concepts or other works in its discipline?
This evaluation is written in formal academic style and logically presented. Group and order your ideas into paragraphs. Start with the broad impressions first and then move into the details of the technical elements. For shorter critiques, you may discuss the strengths of the works, and then the weaknesses. In longer critiques, you may wish to discuss the positive and negative of each key critical question in individual paragraphs.
To support the evaluation, provide evidence from the work itself, such as a quote or example, and you should also cite evidence from related sources. Explain how this evidence supports your evaluation of the work.
This is usually a very brief paragraph, which includes:
- A statement indicating the overall evaluation of the work
- A summary of the key reasons, identified during the critical evaluation, why this evaluation was formed.
- In some circumstances, recommendations for improvement on the work may be appropriate.
Include all resources cited in your critique. Check with your lecturer/tutor for which referencing style to use.
Checklist for a critique
- Mentioned the name of the work, the date of its creation and the name of the creator?
- Accurately summarised the work being critiqued?
- Mainly focused on the critical evaluation of the work?
- Systematically outlined an evaluation of each element of the work to achieve the overall purpose?
- used evidence, from the work itself as well as other sources, to back and illustrate my assessment of elements of of the work?
- formed an overall evaluation of the work, based on critical reading?
- used a well structured introduction, body and conclusion?
- used correct grammar, spelling and punctuation; clear presentation; and appropriate referencing style?
University of New South Wales - some general criteria for evaluating works
University of Toronto - The book review or article critique
A member of the Ya̧nomamö people at Irotatheri community in Venezuela's Amazonas state, near the Brazilian border, in September 2012. Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
A member of the Ya̧nomamö people at Irotatheri community in Venezuela's Amazonas state, near the Brazilian border, in September 2012.Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images
The Fierce People. That's what anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon called the indigenous Ya̧nomamö Indians of Venezuela in his 1968 book Ya̧nomamö: The Fierce People. It's one of the best-selling anthropology texts of all time and is still in wide use.
In the 45 years since the book's release, Chagnon has remained a lightning rod for controversy about theory, method and ethics in anthropology. Chagnon's central conclusion is a stark one: chronic warfare and homicidal violence among the Ya̧nomamö should be understood, in large part, as a biologically ingrained behavior.
As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explained in an essay from 2000, Chagnon's conclusions on homicide and reproductive success among the Ya̧nomamö attempt to "support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in our genes." Explaining human behavior in this way, by primary recourse to genetics instead of looking to a rich mix of cultural and biological factors, is considered by many anthropologists to be an inaccurate, impoverished view of human behavior.
Chagnon, who was elected last year to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and is a professor at the University of Missouri, has also been accused by some of directly harming the Ya̧nomamö themselves via ethical lapses in his research. (For details, see Sahlins' essay, plus this more recent report from indigenous-advocacy group Survival International).
The debates surrounding his work are burning brightly once again with the publication of Chagnon's memoir, Noble Savages. The book received lacerating reviews by anthropologists Elizabeth Povinelli in The New York Times and Rachel Newcomb in The Washington Post. Then, as reported by Inside Higher Ed on Monday, Sahlins resigned his membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
Sahlins cited the Academy's "large moral and intellectual blunder" in electing Chagnon as one reason for his decision. (The other reason involves Sahlins' objection to collaborative projects between the NAS and the military, an issue that has nothing to do with Chagnon).
I know neither Sahlins nor Chagnon personally. But for a biological anthropologist like myself, these recent, dizzying and highly agitated events surrounding Chagnon and his work are important to try and understand.
This is no mere ego contest between two alpha-male primates of academic anthropology: instead it's a meaningful, if startlingly angry, discussion about the responsibility of scientists to the people they study and (the factor I will focus on here) the contribution of biology, particularly genetics, to understanding human behavior.
Chagnon has remarked to Inside Higher Ed that Sahlins is "anti-scientific," that is, unwilling to see that good science may lead to conclusions about inherited patterns of human behavior. Certainly, in taking this perspective, Chagnon has his supporters, including prominent anthropologists William Irons and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder. After all, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences!
But the opposing voices are adamant, and they say that Chagnon's science isn't good science. Anthropologist Jonathan Marks, in a blog post last week, called Chagnon "an incompetent anthropologist." Marks wrote:
Let me be clear about my use of the word "incompetent". Chagnon's methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices. Yes, he saw the Ya̧nomamö doing nasty things. But when he concluded from his observations that the Ya̧nomamö are innately and primordially "fierce" he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.
I am cautious about using the term "innately fierce" with regard to Chagnon's perspective. Science writer John Horgan insists that Chagnon is a more subtle thinker on this point than he is usually given credit for. Still, I agree with Marks that Chagnon, in his scholarly works, too readily links violence and biology.
The Sahlins essay from 2000 shows how key parts of Chagnon's argument have been "dismembered" scientifically. In a major paper published in 1988, Sahlins says, Chagnon left out too many relevant factors that bear on Ya̧nomamö males' reproductive success to allow any convincing case for a genetic underpinning of violence.
On Tuesday, I emailed Chagnon, asking for his response to the Marks' commentary and others along similar lines. I have not heard back as of this post's publication on Thursday morning.
As an anthropologist, I know that my field is so much better — more elegant, more nuanced — than one that paints non-Western peoples' behavior as strongly rooted in evolutionary biology or as throwback to times past. (Povinelli in her book review notes that Chagnon seems to think of the Ya̧nomamö as "brutal Neolithic remnants in a land that time forgot." I raised similar issues in my post last month about Jared Diamond, who in his own new book The World Until Yesterday relies on Chagnon's data for certain conclusions.)
I'll say it plainly: I love anthropology. I love my own disciplinary subfield, biological anthropology, and participating in the search for the role that our evolved biology plays — or doesn't play — in the expression of human behavioral repertoires today.
So here's the thing, a point that matters a lot and one I want to impress on students of all ages (inside the classroom and out) who have fallen in love with anthropology:
More than any other animal, we humans experience life, and have experienced it for countless generations in societies around the world, through a complicated and chaotic mix of cultural, historical, political-economic and biological variables.
Biological anthropologists know this. You only have to read the work of Marks, of Agustin Fuentes, of Alan Goodman, of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy or countless other of my colleagues, to see that we do. And to know it really does matter, because it's the foundation of doing informed, comprehensive and ethical anthropological science.
So, what now? Am I suggesting that Chagnon not be read? Not at all. Read Chagnon, of course. Read his work alongside that of Sahlins and of the other anthropologists I've noted here, and of even more anthropologists whom you'll discover for yourself.
Sahlins' protest resignation from the NAS was a brave act of principle.
For the rest of us, reading widely and deeply in anthropology is the best antidote to inappropriately reductionist science.
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape