Each time "Critique and Replication" has been scheduled as an issue topic for Advances in Nursing Science, I receive many questions concerning the idea of critique. The idea of replication does not draw the same attention; it seems to be an idea that is sufficiently explained in courses or texts. However, the idea of critique often elicits questions like, "Exactly what does this mean?"
Like critical thinking, the process of scholarly critique can be variously defined. Unlike the idea of critical thinking, the conceptualization of scholarly critique has not yet become a popular debate in the discipline. There are important links between critical thinking and scholarly critique, and if debated, many arguments and distinctions now familiar in the critical thinking debate would also appear around scholarly critique. I offer a few of my musings along these lines with the hope of prompting more debate around this important process.
The idea of critique is linked to the humanities, particularly literature. Dictionaries define critique in terms of evaluating literary or other works. Critique also carries the negative (in US culture) overtones of criticism or critical comment. However, scholarly activities in the humanities depend on a type of critique or criticism that moves out of the realm of negativity and arrogant judgment into a realm of deep analysis and detailed explanation that reveals knowledge beyond that of the work that is being critiqued. It is a thorough process that moves outside the bounds of the work itself to reveal broad and specific cultural, technical, social, and political meanings. It is a process that never ends, because insight and understanding grow, move, and change as scholars gain fresh perspectives with changing circumstances and contexts in their own experience. Excellent critics maintain a stance of doubt toward their own interpretations and analyses. A critic may have a fairly substantial, and at the moment seemingly accurate, technical explanation or criticism, but at the same time acknowledge possible views that could shift a technical interpretation. When critics move into interpreting cultural meanings, political significance, or other types of deep contextual relationships, their stance is typically one of wondering, of questioning, and of exploring possibilities.
To the extent that the scholar conveys to others plausible possibilities, the critique itself inspires those who might pursue new work in the discipline. The critique may point toward pitfalls to be avoided. It may provide direction, even though speculative, concerning the manner of construction of a work to achieve an end-in-sight. It also may provide a novice with a model to emulate in acquiring the skills of the discipline-a model that is constructed from insights about an exemplar work that would not be obvious to most students or practitioners of the discipline.
The author of the work that is the focus of the critique benefits in a number of ways from the work of the critic and in fact depends on serious critique as a measure of scholarly worth. Often, the author does not perceive many of the interpretations that are revealed through the work of the critic. The author learns of ways in which the work contributes to the discipline as seen through the lens of another scholar in the discipline. The author also benefits from the critic's perceptions of what is important in the work and what bears further development.
Perhaps one explanation of why this concept remains a puzzle in nursing is that nursing scholarship has been predominantly constructed around the methods of science, where critique is not a common or well-developed process. In many sciences, the closest analogous process is the review of the literature, which is often just that-a review. Students may even be admonished to stay away from making any interpretive or analytic statements in the review of literature and simply to report the facts of what is found in the existing journals and texts. Certainly, speculation in the review that might reveal meanings such as social or political relationships, or the motives of the authors being reviewed, are not seen as pertinent or desirable and are not viewed as contributing further to the discipline. Debates about meaning often are not admissible, particularly when the science is based on mathematical models.
To make a meaningful activity of critique for the discipline of nursing, I believe that a shift embracing the humanities is required. I submit that science itself benefits from, and in fact draws on, the activities of critique even though these activities may not be visible in the scientific literature. At this time of exploring methods and approaches to scholarship that are well suited to developing theory and knowledge in nursing, critique itself could offer important new possibilities, especially if the method of critique is openly explored, debated, and published. I hope that several of the articles in this issue of ANS will inspire such development.
Peggy L. Chinn, RN, PhD, FAAN