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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.


Critical thinking refers to deliberately scrutinizing and evaluating theories, concepts, or ideas using reasoned reflection and analysis. The act of thinking critically involves moving beyond simply understanding information, but going further by questioning its source, its production, and its presentation in order to expose potential bias or researcher subjectivity [i.e., evidence of being influenced by personal opinions and feelings rather than by external determinants]. Applying critical thinking to investigating a research problem involves actively challenging basic assumptions and questioning the choices and potential motives underpinning how a study was designed and executed and how the author arrived at particular conclusions or recommended courses of action. Applying critical thinking to writing involves effectively synthesizing information and generating compelling arguments.

Hanscomb, Stuart. Critical Thinking: The Basics. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2023; Mintz, Steven. "How the Word "Critical" Came to Signify the Leading Edge of Cultural Analysis." Higher Ed Gamma Blog, Inside Higher Ed, February 13, 2024; Van Merriënboer, Jeroen JG and Paul A. Kirschner. Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-component Instructional Design. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Thinking Critically

Applying Critical Thinking to Research and Writing

Professors like to use the term critical thinking; in fact, the idea of being a critical thinker permeates much of higher education writ large. In the classroom, the idea of thinking critically is often mentioned by professors when students ask how they should approach writing a research paper [other approaches your professor might mention include interdisciplinarity, compare and contrast, gendered perspective, global, etc.]. However, critical thinking is more than just an approach to research and writing. It is an acquired skill associated with becoming a complex learner capable of discerning important relationships among the elements of, as well as integrating multiple ways of understanding applied to, the research problem. Critical thinking is a lens through which you holistically interrogate a topic.

Given this, critical thinking encompasses a variety of inter-related connotations applied to writing a college-level research paper:

  1. Integrated and Multi-Dimensional. Critical thinking is not focused on any one element of research, but instead, is applied holistically throughout the process of identifying the research problem, reviewing the literature, applying methods of analysis, describing the results, discussing their implications, and, if appropriate, offering recommendations for further research. It permeates the entire research endeavor from contemplating what to write about to proofreading the final product.
  2. Humanizes the Research. Thinking critically can help humanize what is being studied by extending the scope of your analysis beyond the traditional boundaries of prior research. The scope of prior research, for example, could have involved only sampling homogeneous populations, only considered certain factors related to the investigation of a phenomenon, or was limited by the way the study was framed or contextualized. Critical thinking supports opportunities to think about incorporating the experiences of traditionally marginalized groups into the research, leading to a more inclusive and representative examination of the topic.
  3. Non-Linear. This refers to analyzing a research problem in ways that do not rely on sequential decision-making or rational forms of reasoning. Creative thinking relies on intuitive judgement, flexibility, and unconventional approaches to investigating complex phenomena in order to discover new insights, connections, and potential solutions. Thinking critically involves going back and modifying your thinking as new evidence emerges, perhaps multiple times throughout the research process, and then drawing conclusions from multiple perspectives as a result of questioning initial impressions about the topic.
  4. Normative. This refers to the idea that critical thinking can be used to challenge prior assumptions in ways that advocate for social justice, equity, and resilience, leading to research having a more transformative and expansive impact. In this respect, critical thinking can be viewed as a method for breaking away from dominant culture norms so as to produce research outcomes that illuminate previously hidden aspects of exploitation and injustice.
  5. Power Dynamics. Research in the social sciences often includes examining aspects of power and influence, focusing on how it operates, how it can be acquired, and how it can be maintained, thereby shaping social relations, organizations, institutions, and the production and maintenance of knowledge. Thinking critically can reveal how societal structures and forces perpetuate power in ways that marginalizes and oppresses specific groups or communities within the contexts of history, politics, economics, culture, and other factors.
  6. Reflection. A key component of critical thinking is practicing reflexivity; the act of turning ideas and concepts back onto yourself in order to reveal and clarify your own beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives. Being critically reflexive is important because it can reveal hidden biases you may have that could unintentionally influence how you interpret and validate information. The more reflexive you are, the better able and more comfortable you are in opening yourself up to new modes of understanding.
  7. Rigorous Questioning. Thinking critically is guided by asking questions that lead to addressing complex principles, theories, concepts, or problems more effectively, and in so doing, help distinguish what is known from from what is not known [or that may be hidden]. Critical thinking involves deliberately framing inquiries not only as hypotheses or axioms, but as a way to apply systematic, disciplined, in-depth forms of questioning about the research problem and in relation to your positionality as a researcher.
  8. Social Change. An overarching goal of critical thinking applied to research and writing is to seek to identify and challenge forces of inequality, exploitation, oppression, and marinalization that contribute to maintaining the status quo within institutions of society. This can include, for example, schools, court system, businesses, government agencies, or religious organizations that have been created and maintained through certain ways of thinking within the dominant culture. Thinking critically fosters a sense of awareness and empathy about where social change is needed within the overall research process.

Critical thinking permeates the entire research and writing process. However, it applies in particular to the literature review and discussion sections of your paper. These two sections of a research paper most clearly reflect the external/internal duality of thinking critically.

In reviewing the literature, it is important to reflect upon specific aspects of a study, such as, 1) determining if the research design effectively establishes cause and effect relationships or provides insight into explaining why certain phenomena do or do not occur; 2) assessing whether the method of gathering data or information supports the objectives of your study; and, 3) evaluating if the assumptions used to arrive at a specific conclusion are evidence-based and relevant to addressing the topic. Critically thinking applies to these elements of reviewing prior research by assessing how each source might perpetuate inequalities or hide the voices of others, thereby, limiting its applicability for understanding the scope of the problem and its impact throughout society.

Critical thinking applies to the discussion section of your paper because this is where you contemplate the results of your study and explain its significance in relation to addressing the research problem. Discussion involves more than just summarizing findings and describing outcomes. It includes deliberately considering the importance of the findings and providing reasoned explanations why your paper helps to fill a gap in the literature or expand knowledge and understanding in ways that inform practice. Critical thinking uses reflection to examine your own beliefs concerning the significance of the results in ways that avoid using biased judgment and decision making.

Using Questions to Enable Critical Thinking

At its most fundamental level, critical thinking is thinking about thinking in ways that improve the effectiveness of your ability to reason, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and report information and, as a result, it advances deeper explorations of the topic*. From a practical standpoint, critical thinking is an act of introspective self-examination that involves formulating open-ended questions that inspire higher levels of reasoning about a research problem. The purpose of asking questions during the research process is to apply a framework of inquiry that challenges conventional assumptions, scrutinizes the evidence presented, determines how effectively arguments have been supported by that evidence, discerns patterns or trends in the findings, and helps imagine alternative outcomes if new or different factors were introduced.

Below are examples of questions that can stimulate critical thinking:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • Why does this research problem matter?
  • Does the problem matter to everyone or just certain groups?
  • How might your perspective change if you were on the other side of the argument?
  • What patterns or connections can you see in the results?
  • What key factors could have altered the outcomes described in the results?
  • What evidence would be needed to support any alternative outcomes?
  • Should there be any additional or alternative interpretations of the research outcomes?
  • What is the explanation for the cause of an event or phenomenon?
  • Why has a particular situation or condition arisen?
  • Who will be impacted by the recommendations posed by the author?
  • Who might be excluded from the author’s recommendations?
  • When and how will you know that the recommendations have worked?
  • In what ways can you apply knowledge from this study to new situations?
  • What is another way to look at how the study was designed?
  • How does the study contradict or confirm your understanding of the research problem?
  • Do the outcomes of the study inform your own lived experiences?
  • What do you think is the significance of this study and why?
  • What are the overall strengths and weakness of this study?

NOTE: Being a critical thinker doesn't just happen. Casting a critical eye on how effectively others have studied a research problem requires developing self-confidence in your own abilities to actively engage with information, to consistently ask how and why questions about the research, and to deliberately analyze arguments and recommendations set forth by the author. Examining critically your own beliefs and feeling about your writing involves a willingness to be comfortable questioning yourself in a way that promotes a strong sense of self-awareness and introspection. Together, these outward and inward looking habits can help improve your critical thinking skills and inform how to effectively research and write a college-level research paper.

* Kharbach, Med. “Examples of Critical Thinking Questions for Students.” Educational Technology and Mobile Learning blog, Last Update: November 10, 2023.

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