Critical thinking for understanding social care research
In some of the natural sciences, such as chemistry or physics, a great deal of what is known is considered 'fact' and is accepted at face value. For instance, in chemistry if you combine two compounds in a certain way under set conditions there will be the same reaction every time.
In the social world, and therefore in social science, there is more complexity due to the interplay between a situation's context and human action, emotion and experience. As Evans and Hardy (2010: 2) point out:
In social work, complexity often lies in seeing what is always there, below the surface; recognising the wider implications of apparently ordinary actions; acknowledging the important part played by feelings, thoughts and values in people's lives.
While it is possible to read about social research uncritically, that is, taking whatever you read at face value and then applying that 'evidence' to the world around you, within a framework of social work or social care this shallow approach is less likely to provide benefits for service users. A critical approach helps you to unpick the research so that you can decide how important it is in relation to your work, whether that be writing up an assignment as a student or using your research-minded skills to underpin your practice with service users.
A useful definition of critical thinking for those working in the field of social care comes from Stella Jones-Devitt and Liz Smith (2007: 7):
Making sense of the world through a process of questioning the questions, challenging assumptions, recognising that bodies of knowledge can be chaotic and evolving; ultimately with the aim of continually improving thinking.
Critical thinking is an essential part of critical reflection. Both are about 'questioning the questions' and 'challenging assumptions'. Critical reflection can be said to combine critical thinking with values, theoretical knowledge and practice knowledge, aiming 'to enable practitioners to re-think their assumptions about practice and therefore do things differently' (Evans and Hardy 2010: 128).
Critical thinking can be practised. For this exercise, select two newspaper reports about a social care-related story from competing papers, for instance The Guardian and the Daily Mail The reports might be, for example, about a child death, elder abuse or learning disability in work. Read them both and then consider for each of them:
- the agenda of the newspaper
- the discourses, or themes, that run through each article
- the types of word used to describe the story
- the feelings the stories brought up for you.
One way to think critically about research is to ask questions about it. This will open up the research, moving it beyond the conclusions or findings on display in the write-up and allowing you to consider, for instance, whether it comes from an anti-oppressive value base or not. Although the answers may not always be clearly defined, a useful set of questions to work with might be:
- Who owns the research? (e.g. A university, a service user group, a government research body, or an independent research organisation.)
- Who controls it?
- Who funded it?
- Whose interests does it serve ? (e.g. service users, practitioners, managers, commissioners.)
- Who benefits from it?
- What was its purpose?
- Who designed its questions and framed its scope?
- Who carried it out?
- Who wrote it up?
- How were its results disseminated, and to what end?
This kind of critical interrogation of a piece of research should run alongside an appraisal of its approach, ethics and methods, which help to assess the quality and strength of the research. This is covered in Critical appraisal in the Finding research section of this resource.
Find a journal article that interests you. Read it through, and then use the list of questions above to think critically about what you have read. Write down the questions and the answers and then consider what this tells you about the research.